A Hands-on Approach to Protecting Wild Lands

Jeff Hunter with crosscut sawMany of us spend a great deal of our waking hours advocating for wilderness protection, but how often do we get out and actually get our hands dirty taking care of the wild land that we spend so much time trying to protect? Wilderness stewardship is one Bright Idea that is wildly urgent, according to Jeff Hunter, field organizer with Tennessee Wild, and wilderness trail advocate Bill Hodge.

A coalition of eight organizations working to protect federal public lands across the state, Tennessee Wild is a project of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition (SAFC). Following Senator Lamar Alexander's introduction of The Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2010 (S. 3470) — which would designate almost 20,000 acres of land in the Cherokee National Forest as wilderness, there was some concern from some volunteer trail-maintaining groups that wilderness trails would be too difficult to maintain without chainsaws and weed whackers, which are prohibited in wilderness.

Hodge and Hunter recognized the scarcity of volunteer wilderness stewards in their region, so they have embraced the challenge of trail restoration and are working to spread a passion for land stewardship to a broader group of people. “Trails are how people interface with wilderness and if they are not properly maintained then the visitor experience is diminished,” says Hunter.

Hodge's budding organization — the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) — is intended to compliment wilderness advocacy with wilderness-appropriate stewardship. Whereas now, much of the trail work is done by Hodge and Hunter themselves, SAWS will work with land managers from the Forest Service to create a framework that will make it easier for other Tennesseans to get involved in taking care of their local wilderness areas. The advisory council for SAWS includes representatives from various wilderness user groups, such as equestrians and sportsmen, throughout Southern Appalachia.

Hodge believes that a key challenge in crafting a sustainable wilderness stewardship program will be to attract the interest of younger generations. “Many trail clubs are very gray,” he notes. Outreach through Facebook and Twitter will be valuable, but Hodge also cites family-friendly events and wilderness education tailored to children as ways to reach and recruit the next generation of wilderness stewards.

While use of crosscut saws and axes to clear trails requires Forest Service certification as well as First Aid/CPR training, other tasks using loppers and swing blades can be performed after a simple fifteen minute orientation. Hodge hopes that if he can facilitate an initial experience in which new volunteers gain a deeper connection with the land during a weekend volunteer trip or an Alternative Spring Break then they may develop a lifelong commitment to this land.

If you've never picked up a saw before, have no fear! Hunter says. “There's a role for everybody!” So, for those who live and breathe forest advocacy while sitting in front of their computers in urban office buildings, Hodge and Hunter offer an open invitation: come on down to Tennessee and learn how to walk the walk in terms of trail maintenance. After all, according to Hodge, “Stewardship is advocacy after the fact.” There are similar wilderness stewardship organizations across the country, working in close collaboration with the Forest Service and other federal wilderness agencies.