In August 2015, the Boulder-White Clouds was  finally protected as wilderness, and hundreds of Idahoans  donned their boots and headed out into the new wilderness areas. We  wondered how we could engage people in an extended “celebration” of this new wilderness-after all, it had taken four decades to achieve permanent protection!

Together with Sawtooth National Forest staff, we dreamed up a wilderness stewardship program. Our plan was to invite people  who loved the mountains, the trails and the solitude to help take care of them. So last summer, we put the word out that we were creating a stewardship  program and needed people’s help.  My colleague Betsy Mizell, community engagement associate in our Ketchum field office, prayed  that she would have 10 people answer her  call to action. She got 35!

Wilderness Stewards to the Rescue!

These people from across southern half of Idaho made 116 patrols  into the Hemingway-Boulders, White Clouds, Jim McClure-Jerry Peak, and Sawtooth  Wildernesses. They carried out nearly 85 pounds of garbage; counted 919 hikers, 553 backpackers, 35 horseback riders, 8 horse or mule packers, 4 illegal mountain bikers, 6 legal motorcycles  and 116 dogs; and cleaned 61 fire rings and destroyed another 98.  The Forest Service told us  that the results equaled those of 3.5 wilderness rangers.

Our vision was to connect people with the amazing landscapes and wildlife habitats that ICL had just spent four decades seeking to protect as wilderness-the Boulder-White Cloud  Mountains of Central Idaho. And boy were they willing!

A Vision Becomes  Reality

I had known that the wilderness stewardship program was awesome, but recently I  had the opportunity to  listen to Sawtooth National Forest Superviser Kit Mullen speak at our annual Wild Idaho conference at Redfish Lake Lodge. While some groups-conservationists and otherwise-often show up to tell the Forest Service how something should be, she said, “ICL shows up to sit at the table, roll up their sleeves, and explore the possibilities.”

And indeed, the joint wilderness stewardship program is a great example of that sort of creative  problem solving. The Boulder-White Clouds were designated in August 2015, and  we wondered, “What can  we do to promote ownership of Idaho’s wilderness areas, educate recreationists on Leave No Trace principles, and influence management by  partner agencies?”

And just like that, the program was born and the moving parts began clicking into place like magnets. At least that’s how it looked to me, although Betsy and Kit’s  folks may have felt otherwise. As you already read, nearly four times the number of volunteers stepped forward, and the Forest Service saved the taxpayers the cost of  nearly four wilderness rangers.

New Program  Sweeps the State!

Drunk on the program’s  success, we’re expanding it this year. While the program originated with the  Forest  Service in Central Idaho, this year we have plans to add broader data collection to the patrols, to better understand this environment.  Some volunteers will be trained on light meters to collect information for the nation’s first dark sky reserve near Stanley. And along with  user counts and other data collected last year, our stewards  will track  wildlife metrics such as prints, nests, sightings, and yes, even scat-all important to understanding habitat.

This approach cannot be implemented, cookie-cutter style, in other parts of the state. Problems and conditions differ across Idaho, so wilderness stewardships programs must be adapted. While the Boulder-White Clouds offer tree cover and cooler conditions, the wildernesses of the Owyhee Canyonlands can be blistering hot in the summer. In this rugged landscape, we are working with the Bureau of Land Management for our wilderness stewardship program. Following training, the wilderness stewards pour their love and service into monthly projects-anything from recording broken  fences and escaped livestock to repairing vandalism in interpretive kiosks to counting boats on the Owyhee River.

Our plans for a wilderness stewardship program in North  Idaho are also underway. In the Panhandle, we’re focusing specifically on the Selkirk Recommended Wilderness-since this part of the state has no permanently protected wilderness … yet-and working with the Bonners Ferry Ranger District. This year, we hope to have wilderness stewards inventory and rehabilitate campsites as well as restore vegetation at a handful of high mountain lakes in the recommended wilderness. ICL will work with the Forest Service to train our wilderness stewards  in methods and tools for data collection. Volunteers will also  install signage at trailheads, boundaries and other necessary locations.

You Can “Walk the Walk” and Share the Love

Just as  Kit and others  count on ICL to roll up our sleeves and get to work, we need you to do the same:

  • Contact any of our three offices statewide to ask questions and express your interest in our wilderness stewardship program.
  • Be stewards on your own hikes by following  Leave No Trace  principles, collecting trash, cleaning up campsites and noting wildlife signs.
  • If your knees just won’t take those mountain trails anymore, make a gift to help us purchase light meters,  gloves and other equipment  to  ease the work for our wilderness stewards  a little bit!