Standing in a shaded tent at the Powerdam Trailhead in Mill Creek on Saturday morning, Anna Sprout explained a “purse” – or portable human waste disposal system – to a group of curious children. Fry bags were an item on a display table that also contained camping information, native species identification brochures, and maps.
The table staff were the two new trail ambassadors, identified by their bright green uniform t-shirts, who greeted hikers as they took to the trail and offered safety and conservation information.
âI always thought we needed it,â Sprout said.
She and Ben Lutz are two of the first employees of the new initiative, which is a partnership between Grand County and the Bureau of Land Management. The program is overseen by the Grand County Division of Active Transportation and Trails, which designs, builds and maintains trails throughout the county and often partner with other land managers.
âPart of our mission is training trail users,â said GCATT Director Maddie Logowitz, explaining why her division was the logical entity to launch the Trail Ambassador Program. âWe talk about the desert ecosystem and the behaviors needed to help protect it with all of our volunteers, who number in the hundreds every year, and also the hundreds of trail users we meet during our field training. “
GCATT also ran a similar pilot program from 2018 to 2020, focusing on popular mountain biking trails. The new program will begin by focusing on three popular trails in the Moab area on weekends during the busy tourist season of September and October. Teams of two will take care of the information tables and travel the trails to convey messages.
Sprout said when she worked at a local bike shop, employees at the store did their best to give visitors information on how to stay safe and responsibly recreate themselves. However, it was clear that with all the distractions of renting a bike and collecting equipment, part of the message was lost.
âIt’s the reminder you probably need before you go,â Sprout said. Reminders include bringing enough water and snacks, putting away the trash (even if it is biodegradable), and using the washroom before starting a hike. The ambassadors also explain the delicacy and importance of the biocrust; recommend that hikers avoid âsocialâ spur trails and stay on established main trails; and give safety warnings on the cliff jumping.
Sprout is a ninth grade math teacher at Grand County High School, and his attention-grabbing ability is evident at Trail Ambassador Station. She brings people together around the table with a cheerful greeting and introductory questions: Where are you from? Have you ever hiked here?
Some visitors were local, some were from other parts of Utah, and some were from other parts of the country, including Virginia and Wisconsin. Many had never been to Mill Creek, learned about it on the internet, and didn’t know where they were going, what to see or how long to hike to expect.
Helping visitors to have a safe and positive experience is one of the three program goals described by Logowitz. For many, getting directions and perhaps a water bottle refill in the Ambassador’s cooler at the trailhead could dramatically improve their hike and prevent a search and rescue call.
Another objective of the program is to promote practices with minimal impact.
“For people coming from completely different backgrounds, like Minnesota or Germany, the idea that our soil is alive and walking on it is causing decades of environmental damage is not intuitive,” said Logowitz, referring to to the organic soil crust which helps prevent erosion, regulate water and fix nitrogen for native plants.
Many visitors are also unaware of the volume of tourists who come to trails like Mill Creek. The ambassadors told the hikers that Moab sees more than three million visitors a year, noting that the human impact on this scale has a huge effect on natural areas.
The treat bags at the table aren’t just for display: Ambassadors distribute them to people camping in areas without toilets, and explain how to use and dispose of them.
âThe third goal is to educate visitors on the label that protects the experience of other outdoor trail users,â Logowitz said. âFor example, visitors may not be aware that noises such as screams and music echo in the canyons and can be heard by people far and out of sight, and that this disturbs others as well as local wildlife. “
Ambassadors will depart from the Mill Creek, Corona Arch and Grandstaff trails. The BLM maintains trail counters at these sites, which shows that they are some of the most popular trails in the area and that there has been a significant increase in their use over the past five years. Mill Creek has grown from 45,000 visits in 2017 to 85,000 visits in 2021 (data is not available for 2016). At Corona Arch, 37,846 visits in 2016 rose to 108,314 in 2021, and in Grandstaff, there were 54,000 visits in 2016 compared to 56,814 visits in 2021. The ambassadors will also equip the brands Moab, Amasa Back, Navajo Rocks and potentially other trails as the need arises, Logowitz said.
The Powerdam / Mill Creek area is a growing concern for the county. Numerous search and rescue calls for injuries from cliff jumps into the creek, traffic and parking issues, ecosystem degradation and vandalism have demonstrated the need for education and management in the area. region. The Grand County Commission decided last winter to allocate $ 15,000 in tax revenue for transit chambers to fund the trail ambassador program. Job postings for the ambassadorial position offered a starting salary of $ 17.39 to $ 20.15 per hour, depending on experience and qualifications.
The new positions are yet another part of the network of education and outreach efforts of land management agencies, local government, businesses and non-profit organizations.
âNo matter how many BLM staff there are, there will always be a need for additional information exchange and increased awareness and education available to the recreational public,â said Jennifer Jones, planner of the recreation for the BLM. She noted that the local BLM office oversees 1.8 million acres of land and sees more than three million visitors, and only employs four park rangers. These rangers also walk trails and offer information and advice, but, Jones said, the more outlets for information the better.
“We absolutely adhere to the partnership with Grand County to disseminate this information as widely and as far as possible,” she said.
She added that trail and camping information has proliferated on the internet and does not always contain details on safety, stewardship and respect for private property. The BLM has contacted sites like AllTrails to provide important information on these topics to share on their pages. Trail Ambassadors add another layer of awareness.
âIt’s a great way to talk to people directly on site,â said Rachel Wootton, public affairs manager for the BLM in Moab.
Lutz moved to Moab about a year ago to practice mountain biking and work as a rafting guide. He said the more time he spent in Moab, the more he became interested in sustainability and environmental stewardship. He now works as a mountain bike guide and can’t wait to make ambassador changes on a bike. He alternated with Sprout to tick off the most important messages for visitors: stay on the trail, don’t snack, drink enough water.
Visitors to Mill Creek on Saturday were largely responsive and appreciated messages from the Ambassadors, asking questions and thanking them for their help. The team spoke to 224 people throughout the day and handed out 10 backpacks.
âSo far we’ve only had field staff for a weekend, but I’ve been impressed not only by the number of people the trail ambassadors have been able to talk to about issues important to our community, but also by the quality of the interactions, âsaid Logowitz. âPeople were thrilled to see the booth there and we had a lot of people stand up and say, ‘So what do I need to know? “”
âThis is a fantastic opportunity to expand the spider web of information sharing,â Jones agreed.
During this first season, the program organizers can gather information and assess the best approaches, and consider changes or improvements to be made before starting again in the spring. The program may expand to cover more mountain biking and possibly motorized trails.
âI think this program has a lot of potential and I hope it will continue and grow next year,â Logowitz said.