Wilderness Ranger Academy 2019: Building the Wilderness Stewardship Community

By Tobias Nickel

Piled into two vans, myself and nine other NM Wild Rangers drove from Albuquerque to Fraser, Colorado to join our colleagues from the Forest Service at this year’s Wilderness Ranger Academy. Following a long drive through majestic mountain scenery, we were warmly welcomed by Regional Wilderness Program Manager, Ralph Swain, at the St. Louis Campground in the Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forest. Set against the backdrop of 12,815-ft Byers Peak, the campground became the perfect basecamp for a week of learning, skills development, and friendship building with members of the wilderness stewardship community.

On the first evening, we enjoyed a BBQ prepared by the dedicated and enthusiastic Grand County Wilderness Group volunteers. Afterwards, we heard from Heather MacSlarrow, Executive Director of the Society for Wilderness Stewardship, about how her organization supports public land agencies. The following day, we gathered at the nearby Winter Park Ski Resort, where we engaged in a series of workshops and lectures on topics ranging from wilderness character monitoring to the history of the wilderness movement. We also explored our own personal and professional wilderness values, debating topics such as chainsaw use in wilderness and the adequacy of permit systems for resource protection. Finally, we learned about diverse wilderness perspectives from a panel that included representatives from the local hunting, ranching, conservation, and commercial outfitting communities. In the evening, we enjoyed fun tunes from local musicians and continued conversations around the bonfire.

The next morning, we learned from Alan Watson, Scientist at the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, about the evolution of wilderness social science. Ralph Swain also shared with us his tried-and-true method (WISDOM) for wilderness rangers to make effective and safe public contacts. In the afternoon, we split up into smaller hiking groups and ventured into the Indian Peaks Wilderness to learn first-hand about local wilderness conditions and stewardship challenges.

The next day was action-packed with field clinics and exercises, including land navigation with map and compass, teaching Leave No Trace to youth, wilderness first aid, primitive tool use and maintenance, knot tying, and bear safety. However, the best was yet to come! In the afternoon, we had a backcountry cook-off competition, an annual tradition at the Wilderness Ranger Academy. With nine ranger teams giving it their best to prepare the finest backcountry meals, this cook-off turned out to be a blast and one of the week’s highlights.

The food was universally impressive, but NM Wild’s ranger teams had the edge and took 1st and 3rd place in the competition. I am excited to share that rangers Jesse, Brennan, and myself took first place with our “Golden Grizz Gado-Gado” recipe, a noodle dish with peanut sauce that is a classic on long backcountry trips. Furthermore, drawing on New Mexico’s own rich cuisine and flavors, Rangers Doug and Irene took 3rd place with “Doug’s Famous Green Chili Chicken Stew.”

Following the cook-off, we were treated to more live music from “The Wiedls,” a modern rock band, which enchanted us with their humor and artistic skill. As this was the second to last day of the academy, the campfire was stoked until late that night. In the presence of the fire,  songs were sung, stories were shared, jokes were told, and laughter often pierced the cold mountain air.

The final day provided more learning opportunities, including a wilderness career panel, a community building workshop, and an inspiring keynote presentation by author Gary Ferguson about the promise of wild places to help us heal, find solace, and become better people that care compassionately about each other and the natural world. After an awards ceremony, it was time to say goodbye and embark on the long drive south to New Mexico.

While the Wilderness Ranger Academy lies behind us now, the memories and friends will stay with us for a long time to come. Reflecting back on this experience, I am grateful to be part of such a passionate and caring community of wilderness stewards. I also think about how important it is to reach out to others and for us to have these get-togethers, where we can exchange ideas, share stories, and build new, lasting relationships, because, as Aldo Leopold remarked, “Nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written’…. It evolve[s] in the minds of a thinking community.” Last week, I had a chance to partake in this “thinking community,” gathering to heed Aldo Leopold’s call for an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature. Thank you to everyone who made this experience possible. I hope that we will continue to build an ever more inclusive, welcoming, and thriving wilderness stewardship community

Tobi is a Wilderness Ranger on the Lincoln National Forest. For volunteer opportunities to assist with stewardship of the White Mountain and Capitan Mountains Wilderness Areas, contact Tobi by email at tobias@nmwild.org!

Photo credits: Thank you to Irene Owsley (ireneowsley.com) for taking and sharing many of the above photos.


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