About two weeks ago my wife and I met Wilderness Ranger Atieno Ouma on the Santa Barbara Trail in the Pecos Wilderness.
She is a cheery, young woman with whom we had a friendly chat. We didn't realize it at the time, but Atieno was counting us as "encounters" in her Solitude Monitoring Encounter study.
She left us to continue backpacking five more miles into No Fish Lake, which is nestled beneath the final ascent to the 50-mile Skyline Trail that traverses from peak to peak along the Santa Barbara Divide of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
When Ouma meets up with her partner, Ezra Sage, at No Fish in the wilderness their work will begin in earnest.
First, they will conduct a 10-point evaluation of the campsite's condition.
Second, they'll check to see if evidence exists that users camped within 50 feet of a trail or 300 feet of water. They will look for litter, tree damage, campfire rings, trampled soil compaction, noxious weeds and such.
They will camp there for the night with volunteers who'll come in to help them.
Before leaving in the morning, they'll clean up any trash, disassemble campfire rings and restore the site to a more primitive condition.
They will then hike still deeper into the wilderness to count Solitude Monitoring Encounters with other hikers, clean and maintain trails and find another campsite to rehabilitate.
And she gets paid for hiking. Wow!
Of course, she too is enormously grateful to have this job from June to September.
Ouma and Sage are part of a ranger contingent sent into Northern New Mexico wilderness areas by New Mexico Wild.
New Mexico Wild's work-study project has a four-fold objective:
1. Count the number of encounters with hikers, like me.
2. Assess conditions of trails, campsites and identify invasive species in the interior of each wilderness.
3. Clean up and restore campsites to more primitive conditions.
4. Educate the public about the value of wilderness areas and engage volunteers in wilderness stewardship.
So you see, Atieno accomplished two of these goals in meeting us on the Santa Barbara Trail. She counted us and courteously treated us to a bit of education in the value of federally designated wilderness areas. We appreciated it enough to want to know more.
It was sheer coincidence we met Atieno, for she was not working for the Carson National Forest, but the Santa Fe National Forest.
Since the Santa Fe National Forest was closed due to forest fire risk at the time, she was sent to work in the northern end of the Pecos on the Santa Barbara Trail, which is in the Carson National Fores and was still open at the time. Even though this small section of the Pecos is in the Carson, the Santa Fe National Forest manages it.
Working on wilderness near Taos
Two more of the 10 New Mexico Wild rangers this year, Rhett Spencer and Ben Mortensen, are working in the Wheeler Peak, Latir Peak, Columbine-Hondo and Cruces Basin wildernesses of the Carson National Forest.
I mention these trails because the rangers have even fixed that uber-steep pitch up the last stretch of the Yerba Trail to the ridge. They said that the steep son-of-a-pitch scramble was a huge off-trail mistake, due to trees blowing down and closing off the trail's last switchback route in that section.Spencer and Mortensen are working the wilderness areas in the Carson National Forest nearest Taos. Imagine how extensive the work area is for just those Ski Valley Trails - Yerba, Italiano, Manzanita, Gavilan - all the way up to the Lobo Peak ridge. Add to that the Columbine-Twining Recreational Trail across Gold Hill, and that's just one of the four wilderness areas.
Sounds like a huge job for two rangers. But they have a lot of extra help.
They're attracting dozens of hikers to volunteer for the project, already 83 volunteers this summer.
Not all volunteers, though, need do such heavy lifting. You can volunteer for instance, to take your own wilderness hike to count encounters with other hikers.
Or choose to participate with rangers and volunteers giving talks to groups: students, clubs, any type of gathering.
And here's the one I like. Go for a hike with a ranger. You can be with a ranger for a day.
The New Mexico Wild Partnership
Bjorn Frederikson, of the U.S. Forest Service Regional Office and Tisha Broska of New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, put the New Mexico Wild partnership together.
In its trial run last year, they put six rangers into the field with such success that they've increased their efforts this year.
And rangers are already 50 percent more productive than last year's test run. Key measures of their effectiveness are listed in the By the Numbers box.
Both the Forest Service and Wilderness Alliance each pick up half of the funding for the wilderness ranger program. But when rangers recruit volunteers, the dollar value of the volunteers' hours count toward the contribution from New Mexico Wild.
Spencer and Mortensen boasted of having raised over 1,000 hours of volunteer time for their wilderness work. And that exceeded their requirement to raise 600 volunteer hours.
What Is a Designated Wilderness?
The Wilderness Act describes a wilderness as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. It is an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.
All motorized vehicles and tools are banned from these lands. Even bicycles are not allowed. Only foot and horse travel are permitted.
But hikers and horses are having their impact. No place is this more evident than in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness, especially around Williams, Horse Shoe and Lost lakes.
It took time and effort to set aside wilderness areas.
I am an old enough geezer to recall returning home from navy combat in World War II to the frantic economic boom trying to catch up after the wartime constraints.
Our transportation system began booming in the 1950s. President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the Interstate Highway System meant to tie all 48 lower states together in a network of limited-access highways that we have today.
The boom created concerns for conservationists, particularly federal lands forest rangers. They became increasingly concerned about preserving roadless areas of pristine federal lands.
Forest rangers Bob Marshall, Howard Zahniser and Benton MacKay, for example, founded the Wilderness Society to lobby for setting aside still unspoiled lands.
Howard Zahniser wrote the first draft of the Wilderness Act in 1956. But it took nine more years and 65 rewrites before the 1964 Wilderness Act was finally signed into law.
Those who would like their special interests allowed access to our precious set-aside lands, however, continually threaten wilderness law.
It's partly why the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and the Forest Service set up the wilderness ranger program.
Work In the Wilderness Interior
So, the first 2-mile sections of prime trails in the wilderness areas closest to Taos, Wheeler, Latir and Columbine-Hondo, are the most heavily used and hence receive the greatest attention.With such a small staff of rangers assigned by the U.S. Forest Service to care for trails, it is common sense that they've focused the major portion of their working hours on the most heavily used sections of trails even with the aid of volunteers.
Forest Service Ranger Craig Saum, with his summer rangers and volunteers, does a remarkable job of caring for these sections of the 330 miles of trail in the Carson National Forest
But, that leaves a considerable portion of wilderness trails neglected, with some trails even abandoned. The Latir Wilderness has trails that have fallen into complete neglect and are no longer even identified as trails.
The Columbine-Hondo National Recreation Trail is well maintained in the 2-mile entry sections at both ends. But it has had barely any attention on its remaining 10-mile interior section.
Until that is, the New Mexico Wild rangers, with the aid of dozens of volunteers, cleared all the downed trees, rehabilitated the campsites and installed wilderness signs.
How to become a Ranger in 2019
New Mexico Wild will be announcing its needs next March. It will be highly competitive, as you can imagine.
Ouma said she applied for a ranger slot for this year's season as soon as she heard about the program. She had to compete against 90 applicants for a spot. And among those 90 were some repeats who limited the draw, since last year's rangers would naturally have an edge, reducing the opportunity even more.