cross cut work on dead trees

The history of Friends of Wilderness (FOW) overlaps with a rich legacy of volunteer stewardship for the Mount Zirkel, Flat Tops and Sarvis Creek Wilderness areas dating back to the 1980’s and earlier.  Driven by a common passion for wilderness protection and visitor education, a number of individuals tapped into that community enthusiasm and laid the groundwork for the organization that we know today.

It is safe to say that FOW would not be the successful Forest Service partner that it is today without the dedication and inspiration of the many individuals who blazed the trail over the years, the support and encouragement of the community – and the vision and persistence of one determined woman.

volunteer at sign trailhead Mt. Zirkel Wilderness

Photo of: Elaine Dermody

The Beginning 

Friends of Wilderness owes its inception to the leadership of Elaine Dermody (at left), who first came to Steamboat with her husband Win in the fall of 1994.  Having volunteered for the Forest Service in Creede, Colorado, Win was offered a position as an Information Specialist at the front desk in the local FS office and Elaine was encouraged by wilderness supervisor Ted Porwoll to work as a volunteer wilderness ranger. Elaine recruited her friend and local resident Jan Hatcher to join her.

Win, Elaine and Jan began volunteering for the 1995 season. They were trained alongside the paid wilderness rangers, learning everything expected of seasonal rangers besides law enforcement, and were given FS uniforms. Elaine and Jan teamed up to patrol the trails and work in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness and Win did the same on weekends and served in the FS office weekdays.

The Lady Rangers

In the summer of 1996, Jan Hatcher‘s neighbor Diane White-Crane, author of the popular local reference book “Hiking the Boat”, introduced them to John and Mary Ann Duffey, owners of the Rainbow Llama Ranch.  Sharing a love of wilderness, they offered to train Elaine and Jan in the use of llamas as pack animals and then loaned them llamas and equipment for patrolling and hauling out trash. The Duffeys’ generosity played a big part in FOW’s early success, leading to a long-running series of educational llama treks.

Later that year Pat Wessel, who was a guest on the first educational llamas trek organized by Elaine and Jan, joined them and the three became known as the Lady Rangers. These women patrolled trails, provided education to visitors and cleaned up backcountry campsites. In 1997 Win Dermody joined the ladies as a volunteer ranger. Later Jan and Pat’s husbands – Wade Hatcher and Bob Mayfield (Wessel) – were trained, given uniforms and patrolled exclusively on horseback using their own horses.

historic photo of lady rangers

The Lady Rangers – Pat Wessel, Jan Hatcher, and Elaine Dermody in 2000.

historic photo of lady rangers

FOW’s Founding Members – Wade and Jan Hatcher, Pat Wessel and Bob Mayfield, and Elaine and Win Dermody.

A New Organization

By 2000, it had become apparent that the need for volunteers was growing.  Forest Service budgets were facing cutbacks and local FS staff had been drastically cut. Elaine recognized that the Forest Service needed help and felt that more volunteer rangers could provide that much needed assistance.

Before the year was out, Elaine worked with Jon Halverson, the FS Wilderness Manager, and officially established a new organization called Friends of Wilderness (FOW).  She selected a name with broad appeal hoping in time they could expand their activities beyond the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Area into the Flat Tops and Sarvis Creek.

Soon after, the Dermodys attended a Forest Service regional workshop to learn what other volunteer groups were doing. They returned home inspired with new ideas and began working with Ranger Halverson to develop a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which defined FOW’s scope of activity as providing trail patrollers for all three Wilderness areas in Routt County. That original MOU was signed in January 2001 by Elaine and the District Rangers from the Hahns Peak, Yampa and Park (Walden) Ranger Districts.

The Family from Mississippi

In northern Routt County, another couple were contributing their own volunteer efforts to the cause of wilderness protection.  In 1989, Denise and Robert Scifres, a teacher and principal respectively, drove with their children to Colorado from Jackson, MS, and arrived in Steamboat Springs hoping to work as volunteers in the national forest during their summer vacation. The Steamboat FS office accepted the Scifres family’s offer, installed them as campground hosts at Seedhouse Campground and later provided them with the renovated Seedhouse Guard Station cabin to serve as their summer home.

Denise and Robert underwent intensive training in both wilderness stewardship and fire suppression and then hit the trails in and near the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. Their primary contact was FS wilderness ranger Kelly Colfer. Carrying a shovel and Pulaski, the Scifreses took on various trail maintenance projects 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 that has endured for more than three decades.  Robert & Denise continue as summer volunteers in the Zirkels to this day and are widely recognized as holding the record for most continuous years of volunteer service in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness.   Their efforts aligned with Elaine’s volunteer wilderness rangers when they joined forces with FOW in 2001, and in 2010 Robert became the second FOW Board President after incorporation.

historic photo of lady rangers

Robert and Denise Scifres began volunteering in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness in 1989.  They are widely recognized as holding the record for the most continuous years of volunteer service in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness.

historic hiking photo

Ann Ross, known as “Little Miss Camper”, at age 3 in Rocky Mountain National Park.

A Lifetime of Service

Probably no one deserves recognition as a dedicated Forest Service volunteer more than Ann Ross, who in recent years has served as trailhead host and patroller at Fish Creek Falls.  She started her volunteering at age 3 in Rocky Mountain National Park where she was known for cleaning up campsites and picking up sticks and pine cones for campfires, earning the nickname “Little Miss Camper”.

Ann recalls performing trail maintenance on local forest and wilderness trails in the 1970s with a group led by a man named 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.

Support from Yampatika

No history of FOW would be complete without acknowledging the early support of Yampatika and its executive director at the time, Deborah Fuller. This Steamboat Springs-based outdoor education organization, as a legally recognized non-profit, was able to accept donations on FOWs behalf, money critical to FOWs initial growth and success.  Karen Vail, Yampatika’s botanist, also deserves recognition for sharing her knowledge of alpine plants and flowers on the first two educational llama treks sponsored by Yampatika.

These llama treks were a highlight of FOW’s early activities.  In addition to educating guests about wilderness ethics, the trips raised much-needed funds for equipment and supplies for the FS and volunteers.  The first trek was held in the Mt Zirkel Wilderness in 1996.  In 2000 annual all-women treks were added and continued until 2012.  From 2004-2009, Tony and Emily Seaver led annual coed treks.  These events would not have been possible without the llamas provided by the Duffeys as well as the teamwork of volunteers such as the Seavers, Jan Hatcher, Pat Wessel, Suzanne Munn and Louise Stafford.

pack llamas at colorado wilderness open space

Accomplishments in the Early Years

When FOW was started, the Forest Service set limitations on the numbers of new volunteers each year and required rigorous training before volunteers could wear FS uniforms. Some stayed through the training and others dropped out. In the early years there was not an option for volunteers to just do trail work. Growth was slow but the relatively small number of dedicated volunteers were very productive.  Assistance was extended to the Yampa, Parks and part of the Eagle Ranger Districts. Those years established a solid base for future growth when limitations were relaxed.

In 1998 with the help of Jon Halverson and recruited friends, Elaine, Win and Pat W. transplanted trees in the areas hardened by campers on the shore of Gold Creek Lake. It was so successful in keeping visitors from camping on the lakeshore that in following years FOW volunteers planted trees at Three Island and Gilpin Lakes and Slide Lake in the Flat Tops. Emily and Tony Seaver and Barbara Orms were three of the recruited friends who later joined FOW when it was established and contributed to its success. The following year Barbara Orms was trained and became the 4th lady ranger in uniform.

Trash removal from the Mt Zirkel Wilderness was a big issue in the early years and large amounts were removed using llamas and horses. Win Dermody was certified to use FS horses and went with Jon Halverson on horseback almost weekly to carry out trash from hunt camps. This activity continued for several seasons as well as hunter education by FOW volunteers.

In 2000 FOW volunteers assisted Jon Halverson in cutting down a dead tree to serve as an “enhanced water crossing” on Gold Creek.  The FS was opposed to a bridge in the wilderness area – a previous bridge over the creek had been demolished – and permission to do this was quite an accomplishment.  The log has been replaced over the years and still provides safe access to destinations like Gold Creek Lake and the Zirkel Circle.

pack llamas at colorado wilderness open space

Gold Creek Log Crossing, Mt Zirkel Wilderness.

Trail maintenance activities were formally added to the Memorandum of Understanding between FOW and the Forest Service in 2004. This allowed FOW to include volunteers who only wish to do trail maintenance. These activities included clearing fallen trees from trails, water bar maintenance and more. Volunteer Wilderness Ranger Bill Sanders began leading crews. Little did those volunteers realize how much this function would grow as a result of the Routt Blowdown of October 1997, the ensuing spruce and pine beetle epidemic and the fires of 2002.

The FOW website was launched in 2006, managed by Win with assistance from Russ Orms.  This became a valuable communication tool which among other things allowed volunteers to sign up for trail patrols and view planned trips without having to go to the FS office.

In 2006 the USFS Region 2 Wilderness Volunteer Workshop was hosted in Steamboat Springs by FOW.  Plans for this three-day workshop began a year earlier by Ralph Swain, Region 2 Wilderness Program Manager assisted by Elaine Dermody. The National Director of Wilderness Chris Brown from Washington DC was the keynote speaker. It was a big success with attendees from 5 states.

Incorporation of FOW

After developing and nurturing FOW for six formative years, Elaine stepped aside and on October 20, 2005, Suzanne Munn took over as FOW Volunteer Coordinator.  Later that year, Suzanne and her husband John Munn (pictured at right) added the final level of structure to FOW. With the help of their 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 after incorporation in 2006, serving through fiscal year 2009. She was followed by Robert Scifres (2010-2012) and Tony Seaver (2012-14).

pack llamas at colorado wilderness open space

Suzanne and John Munn

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.

friends of wilderness volunteers walking with banner

FOW members with 50th anniversary banner.

friends of wilderness volunteers walking with banner

Trail Maintenance Crew in the Wilderness.

The Growth Years

FOW experienced a stage of rapid growth under the leadership of presidents Emmett Stafford (2015-2016), and Bob Korch (2017-2018), who began a popular weekly column for the local paper called Wilderness Wanderings. Averaging approximately 25 active volunteers and 2,500 hours annually during FOW’s first decade, the number of volunteers and hours increased dramatically beginning in 2015.  That year, 43 volunteers contributed 3,590 hours followed by 55 volunteers giving 4,818 hours in 2016 and 79 volunteers donating 6,304 hours in 2017. Currently (in 2020), FOW boasts of more than 160 active members.

FOW’s Wilderness footprint also increased during this time as trees falling from the beetle kill epidemic as well as forest fires reached catastrophic 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.  In 2018, that number increased to over 1,500 trees.

A Legacy of Stewardship

Needless to say, FOW would not be the successful Forest Service partner it is today without the dedication and inspiration of all the individuals who “blazed the trail” over the years, those who stepped forward to fill their shoes and the ongoing support and encouragement of the local community.  Whether decades ago, recent years or today, many individuals have stepped forward to contribute to the preservation and management of our local wilderness areas. We owe all of them a debt of gratitude.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that Wilderness is a necessity,” John Muir, early American environmentalist and founder of The Sierra Club

Special appreciation to all who contributed information and their memories in addition to their volunteerism: Elaine and Win Dermody, Ann Ross, Jim Vail, Jan Hatcher, Suzanne Munn, Robert Scifres, Tony and Emily Seaver, Bill Sanders and Jim Berger.