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West Virginia Highlands Conservancy Dolly Sods project has hit a minor roadblock

The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (WVHC) Dolly Sods project is moving forward, but not as quickly as anticipated.

The project was conceived when it became evident that Dolly Sods Wilderness was experiencing heightened environmental impacts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That’s a long-term trend with Dolly Sods,” Dave Johnston, member of the WVHC Public Lands Committee, said.

Many outdoor recreation areas, especially wilderness areas, throughout the country have experienced increased visitation throughout the pandemic. Dolly Sods was one of the places affected by that, as larger crowds than normal visited the area, especially on weekends.

This increased use resulted in issues not only related to traffic on the single road that runs through Dolly Sods, but also for the particularly popular areas within Dolly Sods that were seeing spikes in hikers and visitors seeking other forms of recreation.

Increases in visitation during the pandemic exacerbated impacts that Dolly Sods has gradually been demonstrating signs of over the past 20 years.

Dolly Sods was previously declared a wilderness by the WVHC, and its wilderness was expanded in the last two decades. Johnston said the conservancy has a special sense of stewardship for Dolly Sods, and the Public Lands Committee began discussing how it could further protect the area from potential impacts, specifically in the back-country areas.

Out of that discussion grew several ideas, one of them being to contact the Forest Service to see what it had in mind for the area. The Public Lands Committee met with the Forest Service several times and the result of those meetings was the WVHC Dolly Sods project, in which volunteers would be integral in improving, maintaining and protecting the region.

Johnston said volunteers would engage in five areas of activity.

Volunteer wilderness stewards would educate visitors at trailheads on the basics of Dolly Sods and what makes it unique, as well as certain key issues present at Dolly Sods that visitors should be aware of.

Some volunteers would install registration boxes at trailheads at which visitors can sign-in, allowing the forest service to gather information about how many people are actually visiting the wilderness.

Others would help take inventory of campsites present in the Dolly Sods backcountry, and examine their condition so that the forest service can determine if those campsites are appropriate for use.

More volunteers would engage in trail rehabilitation maintenance projects as directed by the forest service.

Finally, a portion of the volunteers would be given the task of monitoring parking and camping alongside the road that runs through the wilderness.

Although it was suggested in an article by The Highlands Voice that the project would be recruiting volunteers in mid-May, the project has not yet reached that stage, Johnston said.

“I keep saying that that’s coming soon, and it probably is coming soon, it’s just a matter of when soon comes after I say that,” Johnston said.

He said that while the WVHC has spoken with the forest service, identified what they need to do, and gotten ready to do just that, partnership agreements between private organizations and the federal government require that certain forms be signed and approved.

For reasons unknown to Johnston and the WVHC, the processing of one of those elements is trapped in limbo.

“So, we can’t sign the agreement and implement the actual plans until that’s done,” he said.

Johnston hopes that the Dolly Sods project will be a key element in helping preserve the long-term value of wild areas in West Virginia. It may also potentially serve as a model for other wilderness areas in the state.

While Johnston cannot officially take volunteers at this time, he is interested in making a list of individuals who want to participate in the project. Interested parties can find more information on the WVHC Facebook page.

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