When Joyce Fabre saw how many cars were parked at the Iron Creek Trailhead when she pulled in, she knew it would be a busy day. It was a warm, late summer morning, and her destination – Sawtooth Lake – is one of the most popular day hikes in Central Idaho. Cars were spilling out of the parking lot and lined the dirt road for a quarter mile. Fabre tightened her boot laces and pulled her backpack onto her shoulders. Before she could get going, her work began: She approached two men as they printed their name on a wilderness permit at the trailhead.
"Thanks for filling that out," Fabre said. She introduced herself as a wilderness stewardship volunteer with the Idaho Conservation League. "You going to be out there for a few days?" she asked, pointing to their heavy backpacks. The men were chatty and excited, telling Fabre about their fishing plans. Fabre reminded them that no campfires are allowed at the lake, wished them a great trip, and then they started up the trail.
Sawtooth Lake is a place that many describe as "loved to death." Visitors are awe-struck by the unusually large, deep blue alpine lake set against a spectacular backdrop of granite peaks. Striking in another way are the impacts of thousands of hikers and backpackers who visit each summer – piles of unburied human waste that dot the forest floor surrounding popular campsites, illegal campfire rings, trampled alpine plants where hikers wandered off trail.
But that's exactly why Fabre is here – to help educate hikers about Leave No Trace principles, and hopefully impart the sense of stewardship that she has for this place.
"We want to keep it this way for future generations," Fabre told me. "We want to keep it this way for other hikers who are here today. They don't want to see the scraps from my lunch. And they don't want to see the pile of poop under a rock. As volunteers, I think that might be where we can have effect and credibility is to help people understand why they came here in the first place."
Fabre's one of about 40 volunteer wilderness stewards in a program run by the Idaho Conservation League in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. Volunteer wilderness stewardship programs are on the rise as budget and staffing levels drop and pressure on the landscape only grows.
Forest Service records show that wilderness and wild and scenic river volunteer hours have increased about 36% since 2013. Meanwhile, since 2001 the agency's budget for wilderness, recreation and heritage programs has decreased by 15%.
"Volunteers are the de facto workforce for many Forest service districts that have a wilderness program," said Randy Welsh, executive director of the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance, a nonprofit that works with and tracks volunteer organizations. "They do not have the funding, the capability to hire wilderness seasonals."
Welsh has seen about 200 new volunteer wilderness stewardship programs pop up around the country over the past decade. These programs are different from the volunteer trail maintenance and AmeriCorps programs that have been around for much longer. Rather than physical labor building trails or repairing fences, stewardship programs emphasize interacting with and educating trail users. Like a paid wilderness ranger, volunteers like Fabre pick up trash, tell campers to bury their waste and stay on the trail, and, when necessary, remind people of the rules.
On the way to Sawtooth Lake, Fabre spotted a couple with an excited brown lab bounding ahead of them on the trail. She greeted the hikers in a friendly tone, asked them about their day, and then said, "You do know your dog needs to be on a leash?"
"Oh, got it," the hiker said. While he pulled a leash out of his backpack, Fabre explained that the leash rule is in place so dogs don't chase wildlife or get in conflicts with the many other dogs and people on the trail.
"I'm not here for enforcement," Fabre told me. "I'm just here to educate people and be an ambassador. And it's completely non confrontational."
The work of volunteers like Fabre adds up. Last year, 56 Idaho Conservation League wilderness stewards interacted with 3,216 trail users, destroyed 109 illegal campfire rings, packed out 100 pounds of litter, and extinguished three abandoned campfires.
But there's one big difference between what Fabre does as a volunteer and the job of a wilderness ranger: Volunteers can't enforce rules. If a backcountry recreator has an illegal campfire, or rides their bike in the wilderness, or runs amuck cutting down live trees, Fabre can't give them a ticket. And that's a problem when backcountry managers have limited paid staff for an area as vast and popular as the 217,000-acre Sawtooth Wilderness.
"Volunteers cannot do everything that needs to be done," Welsh said. "They can fill in. But they're not a long-term solution to what is a crisis in public funding for natural resource agencies."
Maybe not, but forest managers like Ken Gebhart, the district ranger of the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Central Idaho, embrace volunteers' engagement.
"I think we all recognize we can't do it alone," Gebhart said. "The volunteer program and all the partners we work with are all part of the big picture of our success of managing national forests," Gebhardt said.
And the need for people on the ground – whether paid or volunteer – is more and more pressing. Backcountry visitation, especially in wilderness areas, is increasing. And as the coronavirus pandemic played out over the summer, hikers and campers flocked to national forests, with some seeing record visitation.
That trend applies to Sawtooth Lake, too. When Joyce Fabre finished up for the day, she counted 128 people on the trail. That's 128 people Fabre checked for permits, chatted with about wilderness, or asked to put their dogs on leash. There was no wilderness ranger on the trail that day, so without Fabre, those 128 people wouldn't have had that kind of interaction.
Back at the trailhead, Fabre said she had a fun day.
"Acting as a wilderness steward, I get to slow down and really appreciate the experience more than if I were just hiking as fast as I could," she said. "And interacting with all these friendly people was fun."
Fabre hopes the Forest Service will soon be able to fully staff trails and ranger programs. But in the meantime, she says she'll keep lacing up her boots.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.