Aging Well: Volunteers educate, help preserve wilderness |

Aging Well: Volunteers educate, help preserve wilderness

Tamera Manzanares

Volunteers, from left, Tony Seaver, Denise Scifres, Louise Stafford, Elaine Kopf and Jay Kopf are members of Friends of the Wilderness, which helps the U.S. Forest Service manage and protect local wilderness areas.

Many older adults enjoy more of the activities they love, such as hiking, during retirement.

A group of Routt County volunteers have found a way to indulge their love of wild places while helping protect those areas. Their organization, Friends of the Wilderness, assists the U.S. Forest Service by maintaining trails and educating the public about respecting local wilderness areas.

“Our volunteers axre so, so dedicated,” said Suzanne Munn, volunteer coordinator. “They just take personal responsibility for our wilderness out there – after all, it’s our land.”

The organization started about 10 years ago with a group of active retirees volunteering for the Forest Service. In 2001, the volunteers formed Friends of the Wilderness and established a formal partnership with the agency.

The group, which attained nonprofit status in 2007, has grown to more than 30 volunteers. Together, they put in about 2,000 volunteer hours in the Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and Flat Tops Wilderness areas last year.

Current volunteers’ ages range from 50 to 73, though they welcome members of all ages.

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“Every year it gets bigger and better, and we see more results and accomplishments,” Munn said. “We’d love to have more people come on board.”

Personal presence

Volunteers, who wear Forest Service uniforms and abide by agency rules and techniques, typically head out on commonly used trails for day or multi-day treks. They talk to hikers and campers, answering questions and advising them of rules and concerns related to fires and other hazards.

Their presence is often welcomed by visitors, particularly those from outside the Rocky Mountains, who may be a bit intimidated by their remote journey.

“Sometimes they can’t believe they are seeing a living, breathing, enthusiastic person out there. : They love encountering us on the trail,” Munn said.

Although volunteers urge visitors to change illegal behavior, such as camping too close to a stream or lake, they do not write tickets or provide enforcement.

During training, volunteers learn nonconfrontational, effective techniques for approaching different kinds of campers and hikers, the vast majority of who are friendly and accommodating.

“Even grumpy old hunters appreciate what it is we are doing,” Munn said.

The idea of wilderness can be vague and abstract for some visitors, said Tony Seaver, a longtime volunteer with his wife, Emily.

Some visitors, for example, may not realize they can’t ride their mountain bikes, use chain saws or do other things that might be allowed in National Forest. By educating them about rules and the natural beauty of wilderness, volunteers ultimately are helping build grassroots support for wilderness protection, he said.

“Once (visitors) have been out there, even on a day hike, from that point on, it’s personal. : From then on when they read about issues threatening the wilderness, they relate back to their personal experience,” Seaver said.

Keeping the wild pristine

In a time of tight budgets, low staff and increasing numbers of visitors to the backcountry, volunteer groups such as Friends of the Wilderness are important in helping the Forest Service protect National Forest and Wilderness areas, said Kent Foster, recreation program manager for the Hahns Peak/Bears Ears District.

“They provide a great service in monitoring the forest,” he said. “They help stretch the money that we do have by getting things done in the woods.”

In addition to education, Friends of the Wilderness volunteers provide much-needed help maintaining trails, such as clearing fallen trees and repairing eroded spots. Volunteers also gather and carry out trash, rehabilitate illegal campsites and fire rings and plant trees. They complete a detailed report during each outing.

Volunteers, who must be first aid certified, are trained in the field with other volunteers or mentors. They learn trail maintenance techniques and observe mentors’ interaction with visitors. Trained members volunteer at least four days a month including at least two days on weekends during peak season, usually mid-June through Labor Day weekend.

Volunteers log onto the organization’s Web site,, to schedule outings or arrange to join a group.

There are many opportunities to fit volunteers’ desires or limitations. Less physically fit volunteers, for example, may greet visitors at trailheads or even help with the Web site or paperwork.

More active volunteers can work up to multi-day trips or eventually lead outings organized to give non-members a taste of the backcountry experience. Friends of the Wilderness has use of eight llamas during the summer.

Some volunteers, who have completed Forest Service horsemanship training, monitor trails on horseback. Dogs are not allowed, however.

Once volunteers complete 200 hours of service, they are eligible to become Volunteer Wilderness Rangers, which involves additional training and monthly service commitments.

Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at

Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults 50 and better. For more information, log onto or call 871-7676.

Learn more

For more information about Friends of the Wilderness and other volunteer opportunities with the U.S. Forest Service, call Wendy Holden at 870-2299.

Friends of the Wilderness, in conjunction with Yampatika, is offering a llama trek in Routt National Forest from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 28. Participants will meet at Yampatika. The trip, which includes a lunch, is $75. To register, call 871-9151 or log on to…