Towering snow-capped peaks; meadows and hillsides dotted green and gold by grass and wildflowers; a fast-flowing creek cold with spring snowmelt; healthy trees reaching up toward the big blue sky. These were the scenes that greeted us as we hiked into the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness on our first excursion as newly-minted Wilderness Stewards.
But would it surprise you that hiking and backpacking in Idaho wilderness means you also might stumble on used toilet paper or trash, like we found and picked up on our hike? What we gathered was minor compared to what stewards from past years have found — freshly-cut trees used for firewood, a full-sized propane gas grill, a dining table and chairs, and two wrecked motorcycles, for instance.
My wife, Suzanne, and I decided to join the Central Idaho Wilderness Stewardship Program to help undo what others can thoughtlessly and sometimes, unfortunately, maliciously do to our protected public lands. We wanted to hike to enjoy Idaho’s wilderness, but also to do so with a purpose.
Dozens of volunteer stewards had the same idea on a bluebird Sunday in the Wood River Valley as staff from the Idaho Conservation League, U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service trained us on what to expect. The all-day session covered the history and basics of wilderness and recommended wilderness areas, as well as outdoor training to do more than pick up trash. For instance, we learned how to undo outsized fire rings and to naturalize them again and, most importantly for me, how to raise awareness about “Leave No Trace” principles with folks who may not have heard of such things.
We also learned we would support the work of just five Forest Service rangers who oversee the entire 756,000 acres, or nearly 1,200 square miles, of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, which includes three wilderness areas: Sawtooths, Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds and Hemingway-Boulders. Also, new this year, stewards could volunteer in the 43,243 acres (66 square miles) of wilderness associated with Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. The Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness and recommended wilderness areas in the Pioneer Mountains and Lost River Range are also covered by the program.
It seems foolish to say that sometimes all we need is an excuse to get out into Idaho’s wilderness; joining the Wilderness Stewards program has been the perfect excuse. Not only do my wife and I get to hike into beautiful wilderness and recommended wilderness areas, we also find satisfaction in helping make a difference. For us protecting the air you breathe, the water you drink and the land you love, isn’t just a slogan, it’s a way of life.