The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative is making a big push to expand its eight-year-old Peak Stewards program, in which 14er fans volunteer to spend several days educating visitors about the alpine environment, Leave No Trace practices, and peak-specific regulations. The nonprofit has added six one-day training sessions this winter and spring, hoping to more than triple its volunteer corps. We asked CFI education and outreach coordinator Brian Wallace to fill us in:
Mojo: So, briefly describe the Peak Stewards program.
Wallace: CFI’s mission statement in general is to protect and preserve the natural integrity of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks through active stewardship and public education. The Peak Stewards program exclusively focuses on the education portion. Peak Stewards receive specialized training in alpine ecology, 14er-specific Leave No Trace, Forest Service regulations, and visitor interaction techniques.
Mojo: How many volunteers do you have?
Wallace: We had 40 trained at the beginning of last summer and 30 active, completing a total of 140 days. This year I am hoping to recruit and train at least 100 more individuals, with aspirations of over 500 volunteer days on the peaks.
Mojo: What’s a typical day like for a Peak Steward?
Wallace: That depends on what their personal goals are. If they are looking forward to climbing the mountain, then by all means they can climb the mountain and volunteer as a steward at the same time. If they would like to steward without climbing (many of our older volunteers do this), then hanging out at the trailhead and educating visitors as they arrive is also an option.
Mojo: Do people get assigned to one peak, like a sort of adopt-a-peak program? Or do they visit multiple peaks during the summer?
Wallace: Again, because I am trying to maintain a volunteer program that is convenient, it depends on the preference of the steward. We have a list of priority peaks that we try to fill. In general, though, I try to encourage stewards to visit the peaks they want to. We do ask that a Peak Steward volunteer at least four days per season, but some give two and some give 15, so it all basically equals out.
Mojo: Do the stewards ever end up feeling like cops? Do any hikers resent their presence?
Wallace: It’s funny and appropriate that you would ask this. There’s an educational technique called “authority of the resource” developed by George Wallace at CSU that transfers the authority from the “agency” (CFI, USFS, “laws,” etc.) to the “resource” (delicate tundra, for example). We basically train our Peak Stewards to avoid saying “You can’t do this” and instead say something like, “You would have less impact on the natural environment if you did it like this instead”—for instance, not cutting a switchback. We really try and avoid the police mentality.
That being said, there will always be people that don’t like someone giving them advice, even if it is for a worthy reason, and some hikers don’t enjoy seeing anyone from an agency while using public lands. But the majority of the people we interact with are very grateful to see volunteers trying to mitigate the amount of ecological damage that occurs on the peaks.
Mojo: What do the volunteers get out of dedicating their free time to this program?
Wallace: I would be willing to say that 90 percent of our Peak Stewards would be climbing the peaks regardless of whether they were volunteering. This allows people to volunteer while doing something they already receive great pleasure from. Instead of just being a user of public lands, they can actually help protect and preserve these lands, a mentality that will hopefully carry over into a general outdoor recreation ethic.
We do have some swag-type items that we try to offer Peak Stewards who post the highest number of days, but that all depends on what we receive in donations from gear companies. And there could be a tax break! Under most circumstances, volunteers can write off their expenditures as charitable contributions.
Mojo: How do people get involved?
Wallace: There will be trainings throughout the spring and early summer. The next one is this coming Sunday (March 7) at the Boulder REI, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. All the trainings that are on the schedule so far can be found at our website. If people want to register or get more info, they can contact me at 303-278-7650 or by email. We’ve also got a Facebook page that people can check out.
Mojo: Cool, Brian, have a great summer!