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Mountain Stewards: Angels of the Backcountry

Mountain Stewards: Angels of the Backcountry

On a bright summer day in the North Cascades, a father is hiking along with his two sons, their mother trailing far behind sporting flip-flops. The uneven terrain makes her feet look painful, and a passing man offers that flip-flops probably aren’t the best footwear for the trail.

“Oh I know, my husband—that idiot— said we were going to the beach!”

Mountain Steward John Turnbaugh. Courtesy of USFS.

John Turnbaugh and Scott Roberts see stuff like this more than you’d expect. From flip-flops on scree to gung-ho day hikers with no gear asking how far it is to the top of Mount Baker. You’d be surprised, they say.

“Makes us shake our heads, but that’s why we’re there,” Roberts says. Turnbaugh and Roberts are Mountain Stewards, a special breed of Forest Service volunteers that walk the trails around Mount Baker, acting as the eyes and educators on the trails. These volunteers help hikers stay safe,  but also strive to educate about land stewardship and answer questions about local flora and fauna.

The Mountain Stewards program was created in response to issues that the Forest Service was struggling with around Mt. Baker, such as landscape damage and improper use of the trail systems. Modeled after a program on the Skagit River that educated the public on wintering eagle populations, the Mountain Stewards project was launched in 2002 as a cooperative effort with the North Cascades Institute to enlist volunteers to act as guardians for the land. In a wilderness so vast, Forest Service Project Director Barbara Richey says that they couldn’t manage it all without the help.

Volunteers are educated on backcountry regulations and best practices, radio use and  trail etiquette as well as a variety of special topics that might be of interest to passing hikers. Naming mountain peaks is a popular one, as is wildflower identification. But stewardship is really the big issue, and the volunteers work with hikers on ‘Leave No Trace’ principles, helping individuals realize that they may only be a group of three or four, but they are among thousands that use the same trails every season.

“We’re such an urban forest, with people coming from cities expecting city trails and they get up there and they’re expecting bridges and directions everywhere,” Richey says. “They aren’t always prepared for a wilderness experience, and that’s partly why we started this program.”

Mountain Steward Bob Schneider with the goat spotting scope at Heather Meadows. Courtesy of USFS.

Turnbaugh and Roberts both began volunteering for the program in 2011. Turnbaugh had heard about the program from a friend, and Roberts had been a longtime outdoors person, involved in everything from backcountry skiing to hiking to mountaineering, and saw the opportunity as a way to give back to the lands that he had utilized for many years.

“It’s really a two-way street. We’re volunteering and giving our time, but they [the Forest Service] are giving stuff back to us,” Roberts said. “We get to enhance our knowledge of the outdoors, and spread that to people who might not know.”

Turnbaugh and Roberts often help hikers understand the impacts of their actions, from treading on alpine meadows to starting fires where none are allowed. Mountain Stewards walk the trails from mid-July to mid-September, and you can find them in the Heliotrope Ridge, Skyline Divide, Heather Meadows/Artist Point or Park Butte/Railroad Grade Areas.

If you’re interested in volunteering with the Forest Service for their Mountain Steward Program, contact Barbara Richey at brichey@fs.fed.us

Nick Belcaster is an outdoor journalist who resides in Bellingham, WA, where he received a journalism degree from Western Washington University. When not on the road, Nick spends his spare hours exploring the Pacific Northwest on rack, rope, skins, boot tread, with a pen thrown in for good measure.

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