The Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, the volunteer-based nonprofit lending thousands of hours each year for maintenance and education through the Dillon Ranger Station, recently wrapped another successful summer season of forest stewardship — its biggest to date.
The organization, established in 2005 to assist the local White River National Forest District due to shrinking federal budgets, primarily works on trail projects out in the field during the summer months to improve local pathways for hiking, biking and all-terrain vehicles. It helps assemble clusters of volunteers, at least a third of them youth groups, to go out for workdays. And in 2016, FDRD welcomed a record number of organizations with more than 30 to complete its largest number of summer projects, 62, which entailed nearly 6,000 volunteer hours.
“We’ve really ramped up these projects to reach new people and new demographics who are not familiar with our organization,” said Doozie Martin, FDRD program manager, “to produce the most we can for the management plans of the Forest Service. We provide team-building, and other organizational activities so lots of groups can get involved, and see it as an everybody wins project.”
The organization averaged about 22 people on each project, up three per operation from the prior year. The added labor force helped to accomplish more trail upgrades and rehabilitations throughout the county where they’re needed most. Some of that routine maintenance has also helped from a preventative standpoint to stave off future issues on well-traveled hikes that might force closures once the amount of foot traffic eventually makes them unusable.
“Eleven years ago, they started with four projects and all volunteers,” said Bill Jackson, Dillon District ranger. “They’ve grown and we’ve grown with them, branching out to all sorts of cool projects we really need. It’s a pretty special partnership, and they’re the envy of a lot of my peers out there.”
Because of the surplus of volunteers, FDRD was able to build a combined 3 miles of new trails in Summit, compared to just a half mile in 2015. That was in part because the Forest Service had a new mini-excavator to assist with the job. The majority of that work was done above the county landfill in Dillon on the Tenderfoot Mountain trail, and some of it above Breckenridge on the Golden Horseshoe — both allowing mountain bikes and ATVs.
“We’re all about collaboration across the board,” said Mike Connolly, FDRD’s executive director, “we’re not an advocacy group. It was a good way to bring together two user groups that oftentimes have opposing views for how recreation should go.”
With summer’s work now complete, FDRD is looking forward with aims of expansion and increasing its visibility and level of participation during the winter — a time typically reserved for mostly just planning. Aside from its popular Ski with a Ranger initiative at Breckenridge Ski Resort, Copper Mountain Resort and Keystone Resort (starting around Christmas and running through March), the organization intends to take the downtime to develop further youth and education programming to work with even more adolescents from within and outside the county.
To manage the new endeavor, FDRD has hired Jill Bryant, previously a part-time summer program coordinator, full time. She’ll develop and manage the project, reaching out to area schools and other established groups such as the Girl and Boy Scouts, Summit-Lake Dillon Optimist Club and the like to produce enriching opportunities for environmental education spanning diverse areas including wildlife, forest stewardship and water conservation. That may lead to paid Youth Corps positions for the region’s youth.
As an added component, and as part of FDRD’s larger mission to educate, it hopes to start hosting monthly forums for the general public with partner organizations to bring experts in the field to Summit. Conversations are already underway with Walking Mountain Science Center out of Avon, the Beaver Ponds Environmental Education Center in Fairplay and Wild Wings Environmental Education in the Front Range.
The idea is that the added exposure and attention for FDRD could lead to increased volunteer participation after the calendar flips to summer once more. And already groups are booking dates with FDRD for 2017 and the ledgers are filling up.
Other summer programs will of course continue, including the Ranger Patrol volunteer group and the Forest Monitoring program. During 2016, 56 patrollers provided more than 1,000 hours and hiked about 1,300 miles of trails in the county looking for issues like downed trees, illegal campsites and unpredictable wildlife. On the monitoring front, 42 volunteers helped produce valuable data for the Forest Service on tree regeneration, soil types and what’s flourished best in areas of clear-cuts.
FDRD is aware that none of its achievements can happen without the important volunteers who also take pride in the local environment and participate in work for the public good. “Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization,” said Martin. “While we have a very devoted staff and board, if we didn’t have people who share in our vision and mission, it just wouldn’t work. We’re lucky to be in a community where people value their public lands like we do as an organization. We all recreate in the forest, one way or another, and we’re encouraged by the number of people willing to give back and help us try to keep things on the up-and-up for future generations.”