The 416 Fire in the San Juan National Forest in early June 2018.
Photo Credit: Jim Mackensen; Source: San Juan National Forest Facebook Page.
On June 11, 2018, a rapidly growing wildfire in Southwest Colorado forced the U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service) to close visitor access to the entirety of the San Juan National Forest for the first time in history.
What later became known as the 416 & Burro Fire Complex burned approximately 55,000 acres and shut down entry to the forest for ten days. While the Forest Service acted swiftly to respond to the fire, the nonprofit, San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) also stepped up to help visitors and the local community in a time of need.
Brent Schoradt, Executive Director for SJMA, explained that staff and volunteers went beyond the call of duty to help implement the forest closure in partnership with the Forest Service.
He explained that SJMA operates out of the Forest Supervisor’s Office in Durango to sell interpretive products and provide visitor information. In early June, when the organization witnessed the fire escalating quickly, they knew they would play a critical role in informing the public.
“At our Durango location, people called our office to find out what was happening with the forest in real-time. We extended our hours to respond to those calls and to help visitors understand what was happening.”
He also added that many volunteers who had been evacuated from their own homes, still came in to answer calls and to put up closure signs with the Forest Service.
“Even though they were unsure what was happening to their own homes at the time, volunteers came in, ready to help,” he said.
SJMA staff and volunteers fielded questions from visitors driving south into the
San Juan National Forest over Red Mountain Pass. Photo Credit: MK Gunn.
Throughout the ten days the forest was closed, volunteers also went door-to-door in Durango to talk with businesses affected by the forest closure.
SJMA is a cooperating partner with both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and was uniquely positioned to provide information on nearby public lands not affected by wildfires, including the Rio Grande National Forest and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
“We knew that Durango’s outdoor recreation businesses were going to be impacted by the forest closure,” Brent said, “so we suggested nearby public lands that they could promote to visitors.”
While the 416 & Burro Fire Complex brought a “shock to the community,” Brent said that overall, people were understanding and supportive.
“There were days when the smoke was so bad in Durango that you could not go outside. In spite of that, the community came together and we helped each other out in this difficult time,” Brent said.
Providing Visitor Services and Education Year-Round
As a cooperating association, SJMA operates 14 retail locations in Southwest Colorado. At their stores, they sell a range of visitor guides, maps, books, apparel and souvenirs that promote the public lands they serve.
In addition, they lead education programs, such as their Wilderness Information Specialists program, where they educate visitors about Leave No Trace practices and how best to enjoy places like the 487,912-acre Weminuche Wilderness.
They also lead a Wilderness Monitoring program, where they work with the Forest Service to monitor campsites, remove trash and restore wilderness areas from human impact.
MK Gunn, SJMA Volunteer and Education Specialist, recently penned a column in The Durango Herald in which she explains the importance of wilderness monitoring in the forest. Monitoring human impact in federally designated wilderness areas, she said, ensures the areas maintain their wilderness character under the Wilderness Act.
Wilderness Monitoring intern Harry Bellow crosses Los Pinos River in order to monitor human impact
at backcountry campsites. Photo Credit: MK Gunn.
"Just a couple years ago, the Wilderness Monitoring program was at risk of being de-funded," MK said, and added that they would have lost a connection to more than 30 years of data on how human impact has grown and changed over the years in local wilderness areas.
"At that time, SJMA was able to step in to help the San Juan National Forest ensure that the program continues for years to come," she said.
As a nonprofit, SJMA works with the Forest Service to deliver this important program and respond to the Forest Service’s needs as a nimble and flexible partner.
“We hire interns and leverage volunteer hours to support the wilderness monitoring program and extend the abilities of the Forest Service,” Brent further explained.
“In the face of declining federal budgets, particulary for recreation services, our role as a partner in these types of programs is becoming even more important," he said.
SJMA also staffs employees and volunteers from the local community at the Forest Supervisor's Office front desk and can perform on-the-ground conservation projects at a lower cost. Through involving local residents in this way, SJMA gets the public involved in their local public lands.
SJMA volunteers help at the front desk of the Forest Supervisor's Office to provide visitor information
and sell interpretive products that enrich the visitor experience on public lands. Photo Credit: Alan Peterson.
Celebrating 30 Years as a Forest Service Partner
This year, SJMA commemorates 30 years as a nonprofit partner. To further promote their work and the public lands they serve, they are hosting 10K race and an anniversary celebration this September.
The “Run for the Mountains! 10K Fun Run and Chili Chase” on September 15, 2018 includes a challenging 10K race through Overend Mountain Park outside of Durango with proceeds benefiting the nonprofit’s programs.
On September 20, 2018, SJMA is also hosting an anniversary celebration and a silent auction to raise funds for their conservation education programs. Through these programs, SJMA works to get kids outdoors, leads interpretive hikes for the general public and provides conservation education teacher workshops for local educators.
"As we look to the future and the next 30 years at SJMA, there is nothing more important than cultivating the next generation of conservationists," Brent said.
To learn more about SJMA's upcoming events and other ways they support public lands in Southwest CO, visit their website at https://sjma.org.