Trail Ambassadors – Giving the Eastern Sierra the Care It Deserves

By Alex Ertaud   |  As the snow thaws and creeks swell this time of year, many turn their eyes and thoughts upward, not to the heavens but to the Sierra High Country. The Sierra in the summertime provides much to us humans. A respite from the heat, clean mountain air and water, and immeasurable beauty in the form of blooming wildflowers against a backdrop of towering granite peaks. Human travel to the upper reaches of the Sierra is nothing new; indigenous peoples living in the Mono Basin and Owens Valley have been traveling to the High Sierra to gather food and access trans-Sierra trade routes for thousands of years. However, the population within a day’s drive from the trailheads of the Eastern Sierra now numbers in the tens of millions.

Above: Trailwork Thursdays at Convict Lake. Photo by Astra Lincoln.

As a result, the Inyo National Forest alone sees four million visitors a year. These are public lands, part of the public trust that we share as American citizens. They are managed by the United States Forest Service (USFS). The trails we enjoy today were built in a very different era of the USFS, when managing multiple uses (recreation included) was the focus of the agency. Today, however, the majority the agency’s budget goes toward fighting fires. Virtually anyone across the West will agree that this is a justified use of funds, as our fire seasons get longer and more intense. But an increase in visitation does not mesh particularly well with a decrease in recreation funds. Gone are the days of encountering numerous rangers wearing the iconic green and yellow Forest Service badge, out on the land, working on trails, and interacting with the public.

Friends of the Inyo seeks to fill that void with their Trail Ambassador program. In the summer of 2017, Astra Lincoln and I were lucky enough to travel the Inyo National Forest, doing trail maintenance, leading interpretive hikes, and acting as points of contact for the public. It was a thrilling four months. The winter of 2016-17 saw snow fall in record amounts in the Sierra, and so the summer of 2017 was heavy with work. Downed trees, flooded trails, and choked water bars were many. Most of the work to clear the trails of the Eastern Sierra took place in designated Wilderness, so power tools were a no-no. We worked long, hard days to crosscut 72 logs and remove 238 pounds of trash from 217 miles of surveyed trail between Big Pine Creek and June Lake. And when we were not working with tools in hand, we made contact with 968 visitors and locals alike, telling stories about the natural and human histories of the area or sharing the latest Leave No Trace best practices.

Alex inspects the work. Photo by Ben Wickham

Alex inspects the work. Photo by Ben Wickham

 

Personally, working as a Trail Ambassador was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I loved interacting with human, floral, and animal beings to create a delightful work experience. The natural splendor I experienced day-to-day in my position was amazing, and caring for it provided me with purpose. But without the context of my fellow humans, that purpose would have remained nebulous, and my work a mere self-centered esoteric exercise. We got to experience the benevolence of our fellow humans firsthand, as we had 84 volunteers join us in weekly “Trailwork Thursdays.” Without their help, we never would have been able to accomplish such Herculean tasks as clearing hundreds of pounds of flood debris from the boardwalk on the west side of Convict Lake. While we may forever ponder whether a tree falling in a human-less forest makes a sound, I know for certain that my summer would not have been as rich without humans there to make sure the work I did existed outside of a vacuum.

At the season’s wrap in October, it was clear that the work Astra and I did was invaluable to the Inyo. Wendy Schneider, Executive Director of Friends of the Inyo, proposed doubling the program for the summer of 2018. She envisioned a powerful cadre of skilled and dedicated stewards for the vast landscape that is the Inyo National Forest. She and Julia Runcie, Stewardship Program Director, got to the hard work of raising the funds necessary to have four staff working throughout the Eastern Sierra, leading interpretive hikes, coordinating volunteer projects for visiting youth, and completing critical trail work all summer long. They reached out to local and national businesses and applied for grants from across the nonprofit world. Thanks to Julia’s and Wendy’s tireless efforts, and our Trail Ambassador  donors, we met our fundraising goal, and will be able to staff the Inyo National Forest appropriately. Our sincerest thanks go to Patagonia, Eastside Sports, the Westin Monache Resort, the Town of Mammoth Lakes, Mammoth Lakes Recreation, the National Forest Foundation, Southern California Edison, the Mt. Williamson Motel, Rock Creek Lakes Resort, and the over 70 individuals who helped ensure the Inyo National Forest will be staffed with enthusiastic, knowledgeable, caring Trail Ambassadors from Horseshoe Meadows to Lundy Canyon.

This summer will be a bittersweet one for me. I have now transitioned to an indoor role with Friends of the Inyo, engaging with people all around the state and spreading the good word of the stellar work we do as an organization. So I will not be out there this summer as a Trail Ambassador. I am sad to miss out on all that good fun of leading hikes, organizing volunteer days, and sawing out logs. But I am warmed by the fact that those activities will be in capable hands, and that there will be twice as many! I am sure I will sneak away from time to time to get out with our Trail Ambassadors—if they will have me, of course—at a Trailwork Thursday or to learn something new on an interpretive hike. And if anyone asks why I am out there, I will simply reply with a line from Astra: “The least we can give these mountains is all we’ve got”.

If you would like to support the Trail Ambassadors or join them at a Trailwork Thursday, contact Friends of the Inyo.

A lifelong Californian, Alex Ertaud is thrilled to be able to call the Eastern Sierra home. In his work as the Communications and Outreach Manager for Friends of the Inyo, he gets to share stories about the great work the organization does, and hear from others about what makes the Eastern Sierra so special to them.