A Legacy of Volunteerism for Routt Wildernesses
The history of Friends of Wilderness includes and overlaps with a rich legacy of volunteer stewardship for the Mount Zirkel, Flat Tops and Sarvis Creek Wilderness areas dating back to 1989 and even earlier. Driven by a common passion for the preservation for wilderness principles, a number of individuals stepped forward and played integral roles throughout the decades.
And it’s safe to say that FOW would not be the successful Forest Service partner it is today without the dedication, inspiration and leadership of those who blazed the trail for others who followed.
Connection to the 1970s
No one has served as a local Forest Service volunteer longer than our own Ann Ross, who in recent years, has served as trailhead host and patroller at Fish Creek Falls. Ann began hiking and performing trail maintenance in local forest and wilderness trails in the 1970s with a group led by a man with the first name of Frank.
She especially remembers working to repair a section of Mad Creek Trail after a torrential downpour – slipping, sliding and falling on her “butt” in the wet, red mud. Another of Ann’s early volunteer memories was camping in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness for a week to repair backcountry campsites.
Ann Ross actually started her volunteering at age 3 in Rocky Mountain National Park where she was known as "Little Miss Camper" for cleaning up campsites and picking up sticks and pine cones for bonfires.
The Scifres family, originally from Mississippi, began volunteering in the Zirkel Wilderness in 1989.
The Family from Mississippi
In 1989, Denise and Robert Scifres, a college instructor and a high school principal, respectively, drove with their children to Colorado from Jackson, MS, and arrived in Steamboat Springs with the hopes of working as volunteers in the Wilderness during their summer vacation. The Steamboat FS district office accepted the Scifreses’ offer and even provided them a cabin to serve as their summer home.
Denise and Robert underwent two weeks of intensive training – one week of wilderness instruction and another of fire training -- alongside Forest Service personnel and then hit the trails in and near the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. Their primary report was FS wilderness ranger Kelly Colfer. Carrying a shovel and Pulaski, the Scifreses took on various trail maintenance needs in stride, whether it be cleaning out waterbars, clearing fallen trees from the trail and serving as ambassadors to hikers and overnight backpackers.
The Scifreses’ idealism and commitment created a relationship with the Forest Service and Mount Zirkel Wilderness that has endured throughout three decades. Their three children have grown into adulthood, with two of them now making their careers with the Forest Service. And Mom and Dad continue as summer volunteers in the Zirkels, operating out of the Seedhouse Guard Station. Importantly, Robert’s and Denise’s early volunteer activities later meshed with that of other local Wilderness volunteers and helped to form the foundation of what later became Friends of Wilderness. Robert later served as the second president of that organization.
1989-90: Friends of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness
FS Ranger Colfer recognized other roles that volunteers could fill when in 1989 – the same year the Scifreses began their stewardship – he coordinated with four Steamboat locals to start an organization that would be tasked with visitor contact and education at Slavonia Trailhead. Called Friends of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness and organized as a non-profit, it was led by president Lee Schoeneman, Jim Vail and the late Ann Rich and Diane Mahoney who recruited others for a total of a dozen. They counted people, horses and dogs, answered visitor questions and encouraged good hiking and camping etiquette. These volunteers also began training for trail maintenance but, unfortunately, the group fell apart when Kelly was transferred to the Routt NF Supervisor’s office.
The Lady Rangers
Elaine Dermody, pictured with other Lady Rangers, in 2001, founded the current version of Friends of Wilderness.
The current Friends of Wilderness had its earliest beginnings with two women who had a common passion for Wilderness, hiking and camping – Jan Hatcher and Elaine Dermody. They got together in 1995 and decided to team up to support the Forest Service and the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, reporting to wilderness supervisor Ted Porwell.
Jan and Elaine also found a shared love of the Zirkels with llama rancher/outfitter John and Mary Ann Duffey who had previously provided llamas to the Sierra Club and the Forest Service directly. The Duffeys trained Jan and Elaine in the use of llamas as pack animals and then loaned llamas and equipment to use both for camping while on trail patrol and hauling out garbage. The Duffeys’ generosity played no small part in FOW’s early success as the ability to utilize llamas enabled volunteers to expand their reach and be more active in the Wilderness.
Soon after, Jan and Elaine were joined by Pat Wessell and Barb Orms; the four became known as The Lady Rangers. These women patrolled trails, provided education to visitors and cleaned up backcountry campsites. They were assisted by their husbands – Wade Hatcher, Russ Orms, Win Dermody and Bob Mayfield (Wessell) – who helped haul out larger amounts of garbage with horse stock. The Lady Rangers also led the educational trips.
A New Organization
By 2000 it had become apparent that the volunteers needed to grow and become more organized. Forest Service budgets were declining and local FS staff had decreased from three to one full-time, summer seasonal to work in and patrol the Zirkels. The Lady Rangers saw that the Forest Service needed more help, more volunteers.
Later that year, the Dermodys attended a Forest Service regional workshop to learn what other volunteer groups were doing. They returned home inspired and with new ideas. Elaine started work on a new organization to be called Friends of Wilderness, and became its organizer and founder. In addition, Elaine worked with Forest Service wilderness ranger Jon Halverson to develop a Memorandum of Understanding to further establish the group and formalize its scope to provide trail patrollers for all Wilderness areas in Routt County – Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and the northern Flat Tops. That MOU was made official in January 2001.
In the meantime, during the late 1990s and in 2000 under Halvorson’s leadership, other individuals had started volunteering on wilderness trails working on outings led by FS personnel, usually Halverson or seasonal ranger Rich Levy. Some of these volunteers included Suzanne Munn and Emily and Tony Seaver in 2000, and Jay and Elaine Kopf and Bill Sanders in 2001. This group of volunteers along with the Lady Rangers may have been small but they were very active in these early years.
Also in 2000, FOW began staging educational llama treks. These events were held almost yearly and proved highly popular. Paying clients were able to a enjoy a unique, personal Wilderness experiences in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness.
The young organization’s responsibilities grew four years later at the behest of Halverson. Trail maintenance activities were formally added to the Memorandum of Understanding which FOW had with the Forest Service. These activities included clearing fallen trees from trails, waterbar maintenance and more. But little did those volunteers realize how much this function would later grow as a result of an aging forest and the pine beetle epidemic that greatly increased the number of trees falling on area trails.
“A Legendary Presence”
As FOW expanded its scope, it became more active in the Flat Tops and Sarvis Creek Wilderness areas. This included a new volunteer, Jim Berger, who had kind of “a legendary presence,” according to Suzanne Munn, “getting to areas of the Flat Tops that the rest of us could never get to.” Beginning in 2004, Jim patrolled alone and mostly on foot with his Siberian Husky, Meeka. He always carried a saw and sometimes a Pulaski. He also bushwacked off trail to find illegal campsites or sloppy hunt camps, hauling out garbage and camping equipment, sometimes with the aid of pack stock.
Incorporation of FOW
No history of FOW would be complete without acknowledging the early support of Yampatika. This Steamboat Springs-based outdoor educational organization served as FOW’s legal big brother during the latter’s early years. As a full-fledged non-profit, Yampatika was able to receive donations on FOW’s behalf, money that was critical to its early success.
In 2006, Suzanne and John Munn added the final level of structure to FOW. With the help of attorneys, they established bylaws, registered Friends of Wilderness with the State of Colorado and achieved 501(c)(3) non-profit status with the Internal Revenue Service.
Suzanne became FOW’s first president, serving through fiscal year 2009. She was followed by Robert Scifres, who served as the second president, from 2010 through 2012.
50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act
2014 marked the 50th anniversary of The Wilderness Act, enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Under the leadership of Tony Seaver, FOW’s president from 2013-2014, along with Win Dermody, Emmett Stafford and Bob Korch, the organization led a year-long, community-wide celebration. FOW partnered with other outdoor/environmental organizations including Yampatika, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, the Sierra Club and the Forest Service for a series of events culminating with a Walk for Wilderness. Other activities included Wilderness themed movie nights, a major Wilderness display at the Steamboat Ski Area, signage at trailheads, a banner over Steamboat’s downtown main street and a major project to repair a wet section of Three Island Lake Trail.
In 2014, FOW led a year-long, community celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
The Growth Years
FOW went through a stage of rapid growth under the leadership of presidents Emmett Stafford (2015-2016) and Bob Korch (2017-2018) and Board members Gary Pon, Bill Sanders, Tom Baer, Suzanne Munn, Sue Mosher and Dan Schaffrick. The organization had averaged approximately 25 volunteers and 2,500 hours contributed during its first decade and a half but from 2015-2017 the number of volunteers and hours increased dramatically. In 2015, 43 volunteers contributed 3,590 hours followed by 55 volunteers and 4,818 hours in 2016 and 79 volunteers and 6,304 hours in 2017.
FOW’s Wilderness footprint also increased during this time as trees falling from the beetle kill reached epidemic levels. In 2017, volunteers cleared over 900 trees from area trails, including the Parks District side of the Zirkels, Sarvis Creek and Flat Tops wildernesses.
Whether decades ago, recent years or today, so many individuals have stepped forward as volunteers and leaders to contribute unselfishly their love for and preservation of Wilderness. They volunteer when they can, and contribute within their capabilities. They share camaraderie and have fun. That is the growing legacy of Friends of Wilderness.
"…one could accomplish a good deal if one did not need to take credit for every achievement,” Howard Zahniser, American environmental activist and co-author of The Wilderness Act.
Special appreciation to all those who contributed information and their memories in addition to their volunteerism: Ann Ross, Jim Vail, Jan Hatcher, Elaine Dermody, Suzanne Munn, Robert Scifres, Tony and Emily Seaver, Bill Sanders and Jim Berger.