The abandoned campfire Doug Campbell found not far off of the Winsor Trail was “barely legal.”
It was also unsightly, unnecessary and unattended — sitting just past the gate leading to the wilderness section of the trail in the Santa Fe National Forest. The campsite was circled by at least a dozen large rocks, outside of which sat two very long logs.
Those who built it left trash behind too — glass, a bungee cord, burned pieces of silverware.
Campbell and a fellow wilderness ranger, Kat Deutsch, set about dismantling the site in hopes of discouraging others from using it. And then, not far away, they found another, even trashier campsite, including badly singed liquor bottles.
Dismantling and downsizing such campsites is just one of many tasks performed in the Wilderness Ranger Program, a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service’s Southwestern Region (Arizona and New Mexico) and the nonprofit New Mexico Wilderness Association. It is one of several initiatives designed to provide “on the ground” oversight of the state’s forests.
“We used to have wildlife management rangers all around the country, but that doesn’t really happen as much anymore because of a cutback in funding,” said Will Ribbans, who oversees the Wilderness Ranger program for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.
“It’s about being out here, being in the forests, walking the trails — how it used to be,” he said.
The ranger teams work in eight-day shifts, often spending most of that time on multiday sojourns deep in the forest. They assess trail conditions, catalog invasive species, help visitors and backpackers out on the trail, plus inventory, disband or downsize campsites.
They also engage volunteers — including youth — in forest stewardship programs.
Most of the time, they traverse rarely or never-used trails, even finding some that nature has reclaimed. Last week, Campbell and Deutsch covered the more popular Winsor Trail as light rain from an oncoming storm fell . They found the two campsites — one of which Campbell considered barely legal because it was just about 50 feet off the closest trail.
It’s their job to inventory campsites and enter information into an app on an iPhone for data collection and analysis purposes.
Campbell, Deutsch — a North Carolina college student serving as a summer intern for the program this year — and the other Wilderness Rangers also carry saws to cut up large trees that fall over trails.
Finding and reporting on invasive species, such as bull thistle, is another job. Ribbans said while the rangers want to let nature “do its thing,” they also want to know the full extent of such species and what sort of impact they have on the environment.
Cleaning up and hauling out trash, if possible, is another duty. So is letting hikers know which trails may not be accessible because of flooding, snowfall or other obstacles. While it’s not the Wilderness Rangers’ job to focus on fire prevention, they report any fires, Ribbans said.
While Campbell said he’s never seen anything dangerous or unusual in the forests, he has come across human-made benches, chairs, huts and even shelves made out of wood.
He often sees elk and other nonthreatening species. He recently came upon a mountain lion burying a recent kill along one trail. He stopped long enough to figure out what to do before the cat noticed him and took off in the other direction. Campbell took a photo of the prey, a deer, half-buried nearby.
The program includes a volunteer component, in which the rangers rely on the help of one or two hardy people willing to go out on the trail for a day or two, or utilize the efforts of a group of volunteers for a specific one-day job, such as chopping up fallen trees. Next month, they will work with a band of some two dozen students from United World College outside Las Vegas, N.M., on such a project.
The program is funded with Forest Service grant money on a year-to-year basis, said Bjorn Frederickson, an acting supervisor with the Santa Fe National Forest who helped initiate the Wilderness Rangers project in 2015. The program costs $200,000 a year to cover the costs of the rangers, who work roughly May-to-September, he said.
While all parties in the project are happy with the program, he said there’s not a lot of certainty about what will happen next regarding funding. Nationally, the Forest Service’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 is $5.14 billion, some $800 to $900 million less than the previous year’s allocation.
“Our hope is that we can continue to provide a presence in the forest … so people can see our organizations work out there,” Frederickson said. I think the public is appreciative of seeing someone working in a professional capacity to provide direct service and contact with them.”
Sisters Storm and Darion Dorrough, who encountered Campbell and Deutsch on the Winsor Trail on Monday, agreed. Storm, who said she has been hiking the forests for about a year and a half, said it was the first time she had encountered a ranger on the trail.
“It makes me feel a lot safer to see other people around,” she said. “It’s awesome to get directional help out here, and you kind of expect to see a ranger on the trails.”