Day in the life
Hanging out with Forest Ambassadors, tasked with educating newbie hikers

Day in the life

Hikers about to set off on the Ice Lake trail gather round Charlie Schmalz, a Forest Ambassador with the San Juan Mountains Association./ Photo by Meghann Burke/San Juan Mountains Association

Jonathan Romeo - 07/27/2023

Ah, nature – contending with hundreds of people for the best Instagram shot, judging drivers while they struggle at parallel parking, watching out for a woman in a bikini brandishing a shotgun. The great outdoors are truly a place to relax and unwind.

Well, not really, but such is the state of the insanely popular Ice Lake trail west of Silverton, which was already exploding in visitation even before the pandemic brought unprecedented numbers of people into the mountains.

Luckily, there’s a saving grace: the San Juan Mountains Association’s Forest Ambassadors. The team of volunteers hangs out at busy trailheads in the region to intercept hikers in an attempt to educate them on best practices (and even simple ones, too, like bringing water).

“We try to teach people how to be in nature and respect it,” Paulette Schmalz, a Forest Ambassador, said. “They come here, because it’s a beautiful place, and we try to help them keep it that way.”

The Forest Ambassador program is an innovative tool in the toolbox to help mitigate the impacts of heavy use on trails. The thinking is – you can’t stop people from coming here to hike, but you can educate them on how to be responsible and respectful in these beautiful places.

The program began in Southwest Colorado in 2020, and now, Forest Ambassadors are stationed at highly trafficked areas, including Molas Pass, Highland Mary Lake, Blue Lakes, Animas Forks, Navajo Lake and much more.

But there’s perhaps no better poster child for a trail being loved to death than Ice Lake, as well as the adjacent Island Lake, two electric turquoise bodies of water that draw visitors from all over the world. On the busiest days, an estimated 250-350 people make the trek.

Forest Ambassadors are truly on the frontline to help people learn how to be outdoors, and hopefully, carry that with them on other adventures. Still, the volunteers encounter quite … interesting … situations.

So, we spent last Friday at the Ice Lake trailhead to see what they are truly up against (and yes, there was a rumored woman in a bikini walking around with a shotgun, apparently afraid of bears. The Telegraph could not confirm if it was Boebert).

Hiker preparedness

“Is there a fee for this trail?” asked one very stoked hiker, donning fresh, spanking-new gear, as he approached the Ice Lake trailhead.

“Yep, it’s $1,000. Cash,” answered the very energetic, good-natured and astonishingly patient Schmalz.

Schmalz and her husband, Charlie, have been volunteers with SJMA for more than 20 years. For the past several years, they’ve taken on the role of Forest Ambassadors and have seen it all: hikers with no water, no food, no proper gear or any idea how long the hike is.

“Most of the people we see are just not prepared and don’t realize this isn’t an easy hike,” Charlie said.

The parking lot at Ice Lake shows license plates from all over: New Mexico, Utah, Washington, Louisiana, Pennsylvania. Oh, and Texas. A lot of Texas.

With an unfathomable politeness, the couple greets people about to set out for the hike, effortlessly moving their way from general questions, like, “Where are you from?” to more telling ones, such as, “Do you have enough water?” or “Do you know where you’re going?” Some don’t.

Most of the conversation centers on preparedness and trail etiquette: what to do when someone passes; staying on trail to avoid trail braiding and erosion; and how to dispose of human waste and trash. And, just as important, is explaining why these practices matter in protecting the land.

“Of course there are people who think the rules don’t apply to them and breeze by,” Paulette said. “But most people are receptive and cognizant of recreational impacts in the backcountry.”

Indeed, most groups do stop, more than happy to talk about where they are from (most are in the high country to beat the heat in southern states). And – this must be a result of her years of experience as a kindergarten teacher – Paulette is able to educate while not condescend.

“If you’re afraid of exposure, you might not want to make the additional trek up to Island Lake,” Paulette told a group from Louisiana and Texas.

“Exposure?” asked one wide-eyed woman.

“A cliff,” Paulette responded.

“Oh,” said the woman, now with the fear of god imprinted on her face. “I’ll hang out at Ice Lake.”

Partnering up

The Forest Ambassador program began in 2020 with support from San Juan County and a GOCO grant to address increased use and impacts in the San Juans as a result of COVID-19 pandemic, according to Mike Wight, associate director of SJMA.

Now, the program has 11 Forest Ambassadors who rotate around more than 40 trails and roads between June and October. And, Wight said the program has caught on elsewhere, including in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests.

Jon Erickson, the San Juan National Forest’s Recreation Program Manager, said the partnership is essential to help manage public lands, especially with the funding and staffing issues the Forest Service has experienced in recent years.

The problem has exacerbated since the pandemic brought a rush of new visitors to the outdoors, a rush that hasn’t shown signs of slowing down. For many sensitive areas, there runs the risk of destroying the beauty people come to see.

“A lot of creativity has been applied to help steward public lands,” Erickson said. “There’s a dance of trying to not have an overly regulated environment and allow people to access public lands, but at the same time, really take care of these places.”

More than ever, the Forest Service has been entering partnerships with local groups that can help take on the work. It’s just one management tool among many, which can include permit systems to limit visitors, such as at Conundrum Hot Springs outside Aspen. Recently, the Forest Service implemented a parking reservation for the Lewis River in Washington State’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

“No forest has found some magic bullet to address issues all at once,” Erickson said. “But one of the ways we can respond to our limitations in funding and staffing is by helping support and invite partnerships as a way to steward public lands and protect them.”

All about respect

It’s hard to measure the Forest Ambassador program’s success. Even with a presence on the ground, visitors still engage in bad behaviors – leaving trash and dog poop, going off trail, not properly disposing of human waste. (A couple years ago, backpackers ripped apart a historic mining structure for firewood.)

But just imagine how much worse the situation would be if the volunteers weren’t there (also note: there have been no rescue missions at Ice Lake this summer).

“It’d be total chaos,” Paulette said.

Case in point: the family that showed up with no water or proper footwear. The hiker who worried about grizzlies. The guy who didn’t know the name of the trail or how many miles long it was. Paulette, revving up that kindergarten teacher power, explained it’s called Ice Lake, it’s about 8 miles roundtrip, takes 4-6 hours and has an elevation gain of 3,000 feet.

“I don’t like heights,” the man said. “So we’ll see how far I get.”

One woman said a Silverton local recommended she hike Ice Lake to escape tourists and crowds. To her dismay, she showed up to a full parking lot and hundreds of hikers. (Another big issue is off-leash dogs. Recently, a man pulled a gun when approached by an aggressive dog.)

At the end of the day, though, SJMA volunteers are there for purely educational purposes, and there’s an element of personal responsibility when entering the backcountry. As a result, Forest Ambassadors encourage self-sufficiency.

“We want to make sure they have a good time and respect this place,” Savannah Remmich, a Forest Ambassador, said. “If they are more knowledgeable before going out, they are more likely to be respectful when no one’s watching. At least that’s the hope.”

Sustainable solutions

There’s no telling how to solve overcrowding in the backcountry; it’s a problem many agencies are dealing with. In fact, even Visit Durango, tasked with bringing tourists to the region, has started a robust effort to push sustainable and responsible recreation.

Visit Durango recently launched a “Care for Durango” campaign that has reached millions of people. The agency also has partnered with SJMA to launch a junior Forest Ambassador program and set up a presence for educators at the Durango Welcome Center.

Even pulling into Durango, a large banner at Santa Rita Park encourages visitors to recreate responsibly. It’s a shift in messaging to invite more conscientious visitors, a demand by residents heard loud and clear by the tourism office.

“The perception is we want all the visitors, and that’s not really the case,” Rachel Welsh, PR & Communications Manager for Visit Durango, said. “Sustainable tourism is a priority, and we want residents to know we’re taking it seriously.”

As for Ice Lake, there has been talk of implementing a permit system. Erickson said that process is up in the air. Along with staffing challenges, the agency is looking at other regions for possible solutions. Everything’s on the table.

“There’s a contingent of employees and volunteers that have made Ice Lake and that area their interest area,” he said. “A lot of people really love and care about that basin and want to see it properly tended to. We just want to be thoughtful with what we do.”