Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Project Spotlight: Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan National Forest

Signs of a WV project, Weminuche 2012, photo by Eric Hill
This week's project spotlight narrows in on a section of the Great Divide in the Weminuche Wilderness of Southwestern Colorado and the epic 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail that takes hikers from Mexico to Canada. Colorado is a state rich with wild lands and the Weminuche is the state's largest with 488,340 acres of protected wilderness. Lying in both the San Juan and Rio Grande National Forests, the Weminuche is high country, averaging over 10,000' in elevation, with several peaks topping 14,000' and many more over 13,000'. The area has abundant wildlife and gorgeous alpine forests and meadows. The Weminuche is home to the headwaters of dozens of streams and rivers, including the critical Rio Grande and San Juan rivers.

Our project will focus on a section of the Continental Divide Trail north of Wolf Creek Pass in the San Juan Mountains. We will work to ensure the trail is passable with general trail maintenance and proper erosion controls. Our base camp will be at 11,400' after a several mile backpack, affording a great launching point for the work as well as free time adventures.WV project leader Jeff Moorehead had the following to say about the project:

Talk about the Spur-Throated Grasshopper
with Jeff, photo by diverdewan15
Being born and raised in Durango, I initially cut my teeth backpacking in the rugged Weminuche. I first entered it at the age of 13 and I have returned many, many times on various backpacking ventures since. I have not lost my love for this area and as I grow older, it is more important than ever to get back at least once a year. In addition to the normal rationale one might have for being in a wilderness area, the notable feature of the Weminuche is its expansiveness. One truly feels embedded in the wilds of the Rockies while traveling through this region. You don't have to use your imagination to believe you are really "away from it all".

I love WV trips because everyone attending shares a love for wild places and hard work.  Hard work in a wild place brings out the best in a personality and so a WV trip can be a very human experience as well. I endeavor to keep everyone well-fed with good tasting dishes and that is one luxury afforded by the pack train support. Many of my dishes were trail tested on the Pacific Crest Trail which I hiked in 2006. After dinner, I like to discuss hot-bed environmental issues or anything really. In general, I love science discussions. I am an evolutionary biologist that especially loves the world of insects-- specifically grasshoppers and other assorted acridids. People attending the Weminuche trip can expect to hear about the prolific endemic speciation of the alpine Melanoplinae grasshoppers. I'm not sure I buy the current explanation. If that doesn't get people excited, I've been known to sneak up my Martin backpacking guitar and entertain them with songs that are usually set at much lower elevations.

WV participants take a break for a look around on a free day in the Weminuche Wilderness, WV 2012, photo by Eric Hill
North American Divides by pfly

There are many large hydrological divides in the world (the line that separates neighboring drainage basins). None, however, can match that grandeur and prominence of the Continental Divide of the Americas or simply the Great Divide. Determining whether water flows into the Atlantic of Pacific Ocean, the Great Divide stretches from northern Alaska down to southern Patagonia, mostly following the highest peaks of the impressive ranges of the Rockies and the Andes.
The scenic San Juan Mountains in the Weminuche Wilderness, WV 2012, photo by Eric Hill

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Project Spotlight: La Sal Mountains Roadless Area

WV's 2013 project will camp nearby the stunningly beautiful Warner Lake, photo by Jeff Maurone
A view of Mt. Peale, photo by GSEC
The Wilderness Volunteers Project Spotlight next lands on the outdoor recreation haven of southeastern Utah, in the Manti-La Sal National Forest.  Towering above the town of Moab to the east lies the impressive La Sal Mountains, the second highest range in Utah. The La Sals span about 18 miles and contain 3 clusters of peaks.  The highest peak, Mt. Peale tops out at 12,721 feet above sea level. The name of the range dates to the Old Spanish Trail when the range was referred to as the Sierra La Sal or "Salt Mountains". The range remains a prominent landmark for travelers to the region, presenting a breathtaking background to the world famous slickrock Parks of Arches and Canyonlands.

The La Sal Mountains as seen from a viewing point in Arches National Park, photo by Focused Exposure
We've planned this project in coordination with Brian Murdock, the Recreation, Wilderness and Trails Manager for the National Forest in the Moab/Monticello region. In regard to this project he writes:
Not a bad place to give something back

"The trail system in the La Sal mountains provide for a wide range of trail activities and is heavily used. As a result many of the trails are in need of maintenance to reduce impacts to forest resources. Also a new trail plan will be implemented this summer to deal with an increasing amount of use and the WV project will focus on constructing some of these new trails.  

We are planning on base camping at a high elevation camp in the La Sals (either Geyser Pass at 10,500 ft or Warner Lake at 9,300 ft). The views into the surrounding desert country are phenomenal. The project will occur in areas ranging from alpine meadows, aspen and fir stands to areas above timberline and it is usually 30 degrees cooler than the surrounding desert. Participants will be hiking out each morning to the project sites from 1-2 miles and constructing/maintaining trails with provided handtools. It is likely that we will see a large variety of wildlife (deer, elk, coyotes, bears). Many peaks over 11,000  feet are accessible to climb during free time and Warner Lake also presents good fishing."
Also a great place to go for a hike!  Join us this summer in the La Sal Mountains.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day

Heart-shaped Prickly Pear cactus pad

Heart Lake in Olympic National Park
Heart-shaped lichen on bark
Heart Nebula in the constellation Casseopia
Heart on Mars
Heart-shaped rock in retaining wall at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Project Spotlight: Mallard-Larkins Pioneer Area

Lush ferns and old growth cedar forests are a wonderful feature of Mallard-Larkins Pioneer Area, photo by
The Wilderness Volunteers’ Project Spotlight next falls in The Gem State. Lying about 150 miles due west of Missoula, MT in the Idaho panhandle is the extraordinary Mallard-Larkins Pioneer Area. As the highlands at the convergence of major river systems, the spectacular 30,000 acre Pioneer area is the centerpiece of a larger 260,000 acre roadless area that extends between the Nez Perce-Clearwater and St. Joe’s National Forest. The area has been under consideration for wilderness designation since the Wilderness Act was passed (there was community support to protect these lands beginning in the 1950s) and is managed like a designated wilderness. Stretching west from the Bitterroot Mountain Range, the abundance of water draining into swift rivers has carved steep canyons and sustains beautiful old-growth forests as well as crystal clear lakes and streams. The roadless area has dozens of accessible subalpine lakes, including the 35 acre Heart Lake, presenting lovely recreation opportunities, especially in the warmer summer months.
Looking down at Heart Lake, photo by Craig Gehrke
Threatened Western Toad, photo by Walter Siegmund
Once home to native Chinook and Steelhead salmon that swam all the way from the Pacific, the lakes are now stocked by Idaho Fish and Game with rainbow and cutthroat trout, as well as the native bull trout and re-introduced Kokanee salmon. Moose, elk, wolves, black bear and deer thrive here, as well as one of the largest populations of Rocky Mountain goat. The area is an important habitat for threatened and endangered species as well, such as the bull trout, western toad, fisher, harlequin duck and the Coeur d’Alene Salamander that is endemic to these Northern Idaho lands.

The steep and impressive mountain range has many craggy peaks over 6,000’, and is heavily forested. A multitude of wild berries and wild flowers live amongst massive old-growth western red cedar and western white pine. The sharp elevation change allows a wide breadth of bio-diversity to exist here, with the coastal rainforest environment of the Pacific Northwest at lower elevations, while the higher elevations support subalpine meadows and forests of western hemlock and lodgepole pine.
A view from atop an Idaho Peak, photo courtesy of
The Nez Perce people were native to the lower elevations in the area, but it is believed they did not regularly venture to the higher elevations due to the lack of food and passage over the mountains to Montana as exist further south. While miners flocked farther south in Idaho to where gold was found, the area around Mallard Larkin wasn’t populated until the early 20th century. In response to massive forest fires of 1910, Gifford Pinchot advocated for the management of forest land to increase protection from fires, which ultimately led to the creation of the Forest Service. Hundreds of miles of trails were created to access lookouts built atop the peaks of Northern Idaho. As air travel increased and roads were built the need for a vast network of lookouts was erased. The lookouts employed enough people that their closing led to a decrease in the local population. However, the area is now seeing an increase in usage due to the excellent outdoor recreation and beautiful scenery.

Clearing the way in the nearby Selway-Bitterrot Wilderness, Clearwater NF, 2010 photo by Mike Leonard
Our service project in the Mallard Larkins Pioneer Area is general trail maintenance. We will clear brush and cut back overgrowth as we explore the area's magnificent trails. Our campsite features striking vast views of the surrounding beauty, located atop a small pass on Smith Ridge.  Learn more about the WV Service Project in the Mallard Larkins Pioneer Area. 

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Natural Bridges National Monument

By Chris Stockdale
For the three first-time volunteers with WV, the service week at Natural Bridges National Monument in Southeastern Utah was an inspiring introduction to the organization and the contributions it makes to maintain our wilderness areas, national monuments, and parks. In addition to our capable and friendly leaders, the ‘newbies’ could pick the brains of the other volunteers, all of whom had participated in numerous other service trips. The enthusiasm of the eleven participants, ranging in age from the 20’s to 60’s, was amazing. They came from all around the country, and some were experiencing Utah’s stunning canyon country for the first time.

Our project was to eradicate the invasive tamarisk growing along the creeks running through the spectacular canyons of the area. To our surprise, there weren’t as many plants to cut down and treat with herbicide as we anticipated. Because we were searching for tamarisk we spent more time hiking the canyons of what is the smallest National Monument in the United States, and we had the chance to see all the natural bridges up close. We worked alongside two park rangers, and on our last day of work, ranger Jim took us on a hike up a less visited, though equally beautiful, canyon.

For the most part the weather was beautiful. We did endure one rain storm, but as is common in the desert, it was short-lived, and we were still able to get some more hiking under our belts. We agreed that it had been an enjoyable week and all the first-timers stated they would be signing up for more trips. The standouts for veteran volunteer Selma Kristel were the secluded camping area, lively talks about our trips to exotic places and the chance to explore remote parts of Natural Bridges. On our last night in camp, Jim came by to thank us profusely for all the help the volunteers had given him and his staff. We all left on Saturday knowing that we had in a small way helped to rid this magnificent monument of an invasive plant.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Project Spotlight: Mojave National Preserve

A Joshua Tree in Mojave sunset light, photo by Paul Goldberg

Today we spotlight the WV project in the vast Mojave National Preserve, the 3rd largest unit of the National Park System in the contiguous US. Formerly named the East Mojave National Scenic Area and managed by the Bureau of Land Management, these striking 1.6 million acres were established as a preserve on Halloween in 1994 by the California Desert Protection Act, including a 695,000 acre wilderness area. Nestled between highways 15 and 40, the area offers many, many fascinating features and so much to explore. Towering mountain ranges present “sky island” forests of pinyon pine and white fir over great mesas, dry river beds and low-lying deserts featuring impressive sand dunes and beautiful Joshua tree forests.

Hole-in-the-Wall, photo courtesy of the US Dept. of the Interior
An intriguing human history is here to explore alongside unbelievable geological and ecological fascinations. Notable features include the Kelso Dunes, the Marl Mountains and the Cima Dome, which features the largest and densest stand of Joshua trees in the world. Striking volcanic formations such as Hole-in-the-Wall and the Cinder Cone Lava Beds speak to the incredible geology.  2.5 billion year old rocks have been found on the Clark Mountains.

The abandoned Post Office in the ghost town of Kelso, photo by Pierre Camateros
More recent human history can be seen in the preserve’s ghost towns, abandoned mines and the Kelso depot, now part of the visitor center.  Prior to European contact, Mojave tribes such as the Chemehuevi, lived in the mountains and along the Colorado river eating prickly pear, mesquite and roasted agave blooms and hunting deer and bighorn sheep.

A local Mojave tour guide, photo by Paul Goldberg

This dragonfly tried to hitchhike on my car's antenna, photo by Paul Goldberg

Despite appearing as a relatively barren landscape, the area is teeming with varied and interesting animal life including many species endemic to region or otherwise rarely found outside of the preserve. One such example is the Mojave Fringe-toed Lizard (Uma scoparia), which is specialized in its ability to "swim" under sand.

Birds, reptiles, rodents, and larger mammals all reside in the area, although where you might find them varies due to temperature, time of day and elevation. A large percentage of desert animals are nocturnal, or active at night, including desert rodents, bats, owls, mountain lion, skunks, and foxes. Other animals in the Mojave are crepuscular, active at dawn and dusk.

Mojave Desert Tortoise populations are threatened, partly because of invasive plants, photo courtesy of NPS
The low regions of the Preserve are arid, with creosote bushes dominating the landscape on over 70% of the Preserve, while the mountains offer varied environments with cooler temperatures.  The service project we’ll be working on will be critical in removing invasive species of Russian thistle at the key moment before they go to seed. We will use a hula hoe, a tool specifically designed for removing thistle. We’ll camp at a comfy developed campsite with running water in the mountains which will serve as a prime location for the project as well as offering plenty of interesting options for us to explore in our free time. Learn more about the WV project in the Mojave National Preserve.

The beautiful solitude of the Mojave National Preserve, photo courtesy of the NPS