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Fall 2020 Updates

Dear Friends of SAWS,

2020 has been quite a year. The SAWS team is safe and doing well, and we hope you are too. We wanted to share with you some of our activities over the past few months, as we have worked to respond to the pandemic and adjust our planned field operations, support safe and positive outdoor experiences, create jobs in the outdoors, and stand in solidarity against racial injustice.

Please let us know how you are doing, and if you have any suggestions for our team as we continue our work to take care of wild places and connect with people and communities in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Virginia and West Virginia.

Our public lands have seen a nearly 200% increase in visitation during the pandemic, and it is more important than ever to engage in stewardship and support equitable access to the outdoors. With National Public Lands Day right around the corner on September 26th, we hope you'll consider donating to SAWS, if you are able. Our work is possible because of your support, and we appreciate it!

Here’s a snapshot of our work so far in 2020:


Boots on the Ground

Despite the pandemic, SAWS has been able to safely put wilderness rangers, wilderness specialists, and trail crews into the field in eight states. We worked with partners across the country to identify risk factors and developed new COVID-19 policies and procedures to protect our employees and the communities we serve.

Field Crew Program: In the field crew program, we shifted our model from a six-person crew to a three-person crew and focused on work that allows us to maintain physical distance from each other and the public while ensuring safe access to wilderness areas. In the first part of our season, our crews and other staff helped the Forest Service complete risk assessments as part of COVID-19 reopening procedures. We have since fielded three crews working to make trails in wilderness areas accessible and safe, including in the:

  • Big Laurel Branch, Citico Creek, Little Frog Mountain, and Big Frog Wilderness Areas in Tennessee;

  • Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock, Ellicott Rock, and Shining Rock Wildernesses in North Carolina;

  • Saint Mary's Wilderness in Virginia; and

  • Cohutta Wilderness in Georgia

So far, these crews have completed a total of 2,610 trail work hours. They brushed more than 28 miles of trails and logged out more than 1400 trees to improve trail access. They rehabilitated more than 3500 feet of trail tread to reduce erosion and make trails safer and more sustainable. They also worked to close unsustainable social trails in heavily used wilderness areas, to protect wilderness character and improve visitor experiences.

Crews will continue to work across the region through the end of October, focused on projects in North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Kentucky.

We were able to continue work on our section of the Appalachian Trail in Big Laurel Branch Wilderness through a generous grant from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy TAG grant supported by AT license plate sales in Tennessee. If you’re interested in supporting work on the Appalachian Trail, please consider purchasing an AT license plate: information can be found here.

Wilderness Rangers and Specialists:

Our wilderness specialist program grew this year to ten specialists working in eight national forests. After a delayed start to the season, we kicked off our first-ever Zoom training for wilderness character monitoring in mid-June. Since then, the specialists have been meeting with Forest Service staff, collecting field data, compiling existing data, and getting to know the national forests they are working in. They add necessary capacity for wilderness stewardship as we work shoulder-to-shoulder with our Forest Service partners to keep wilderness wild. Most of these specialists will be on the ground for the next 8 months focusing on:

  • Implementing wilderness character monitoring

  • Developing management plans

  • Collecting data

  • Engaging with the public and supporting wilderness education

We have two wilderness rangers working in the field this year, in the Linville Gorge, Shining Rock, and Middle Prong Wildernesses. Our wilderness ranger working in the Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wilderness areas has been conducting a condition assessment of all National Forest system trails in each wilderness. This will allow us to plan both short and long-term projects for our field crews to keep the trail system open and sustainable.

Instead of operating the Linville Gorge Information Cabin this season, which would have been unsafe in the pandemic, our Linville wilderness ranger worked with the three Cabin Hosts we hired to instead take their education work into the field. They are sharing information with the public out on the trails and maintaining trails along the way, working in partnership with the Forest Service and Wild South to identify areas of highest need. A recent visitor who took a group of students into the wilderness wrote in to let us know how much interacting with our ranger and cabin host crew improved their experience.

Our field-going wilderness rangers and specialists are engaging visitors from a safe distance, giving advice on Leave No Trace recreation, and helping people have positive experiences. They have reported widespread and sustained increases in visitation, with many first-time visitors who are getting the opportunity to recreate on their public lands.


Workforce Development

Despite impacts from COVID-19, we’ve been able to provide meaningful employment, training opportunities, and professional development for seasonal and year-round staff. This year, we’ve increased our full-time staff to eight employees and have provided long-term seasonal opportunities for 22 individuals. Moving forward we hope to continue providing similar opportunities as we build the next generation of wilderness stewards.



Partnership in Action

Wilderness Skills Institute

COVID-19 challenged us to think outside the box and engage a broader audience at our 10th annual Wilderness Skills Institute (WSI) event this year. While it was not the way we intended to celebrate the 10th WSI, we came together as a community with our Forest Service and Appalachian Trail Conservancy partners to host it in the pandemic. WSI was held virtually in six sessions over the course of three weeks.

Welcome to the 2020 Wilderness Skills Institute

Courses included:

  • Wilderness Stewardship Performance

  • Visitor Use Management

  • Natural Disaster Response and Collaboration

  • Trail Maintenance and Construction

  • Leave No Trace for Southern Appalachian Wilderness

  • Introduction to Wilderness Character Monitoring

All sessions are now live on the SAWS YouTube channel and the Wilderness Skills Institute website.

We are continuing to partner with other wilderness stewardship organizations to develop best practices for COVID-19. We provided a voice and perspective from the Southeast to the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance and other organizations from across the country. These best practices are available at the Wilderness Alliance website.

In October, SAWS staff will attend the 2020 National Wilderness Workshop virtually. The Workshop is an opportunity for the wilderness stewardship community to get together and learn about best management practices, wilderness issues, and public land research, and provides an opportunity for wilderness connection. The Workshop will also help broaden the path for diversity, equity, and inclusion in wilderness. This year's Workshop will be held on October 9th and October 13th-16th. Registration is still open. If you're interested in attending, registration and additional information can be found here.


Community Outreach and Engagement

Over the past few years, we’ve developed relationships and partnerships with a number of fantastic community businesses and leaders. During the pandemic, we have been featuring these partners on social media. Our featured partner for this issue of our newsletter is Wildland Trekking.

We have been proud to partner with Wildland Trekking over the last couple of years. As a top-notch guide service, they not only offer incredible trip options across the United States and internationally, they do so in a respectful way with an eye towards conservation. To ensure safe travel, Wildland Trekking has COVID-19 guidelines in place that follow guidance from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and the Travel and Tourism Council. Read more about the company and see what trips they offer on the Wildland Trekking website.


Positive Wilderness Experiences

During the pandemic, we have seen visits to public lands increase dramatically, highlighting how important outdoor infrastructure and safe, equitable access is for community well-being and physical and mental health. We've been hard at work this season to help ensure safe access to these wilderness areas for the public to enjoy during the pandemic, supporting positive experiences for the many visitors to our public lands.

However, we know that access to the outdoors is not equitably distributed. We must work to address the historic and systemic barriers faced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in the outdoors, including on public lands and in wilderness. Our next newsletter will go into more detail about our work on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, so that you know how we are moving forward with the commitment to racial equity that we expressed in our June 3 statement and can help hold us accountable. In the meantime, please consider visiting the websites of the BIPOC-led organizations highlighted in our statement to learn about their work and how you can support equity in the outdoors.

Thank You

Thank you again for all you do, and for supporting SAWS! We appreciate your help as we work to take care of wild public lands, create jobs in the outdoors, support equity in the outdoors, and connect with people and communities across the Southern Appalachians.


Donate here!


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