Picture of Chuck Bell flagging a trail in the Rawah Wilderness, July 2009No organization magically springs, full-blown, into the world. Much planning, experimenting, trial and error, and gathering of information is involved. But before any of that happens, one person has to have an idea, an inspiration, which is so compelling that it must be pursued. In the case of the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers, that person is Chuck Bell. While volunteering for the Forest Service, he saw a vital need for ordinary citizens to assist the Forest Service in maintaining the wilderness.

Here, in Chuck Bell’s own words, is the story of how we started.

I started volunteering for the Redfeather Lakes Ranger District in the summer of 1993, shortly after I retired from the U.S. Foreign Service and moved to Colorado. I was designated a volunteer ranger and assigned to patrol with USFS seasonal rangers. I did this for the summers of 1993 and 1994. During this period, both the Redfeather and Estes-Poudre Ranger Districts had substantial budgets, which were even augmented by a special grant. There were some 30 seasonal employees and three full-time USFS staff members working on wilderness and trails. The old bunk house at Stubb Creek was full, and some staff stayed in the old trailers parked there. We had money to rent a team of llamas for the summer, which we used to help us do trail work.

By the summer of 1995, the special grant had expired, the budgets for the two ranger districts had been slashed dramatically, and they were in the process of being combined into one ranger district as a cost-saving measure. I was hired that summer as one of only two seasonal employees (down from 30 in just two years!) and was sent to Gunnison for Level Two law enforcement training so I could write tickets and carry out the full functions of a seasonal ranger. I patrolled four days a week, working mostly in the Rawah Wilderness.

By August of that summer, I was very much aware of the difficulties besetting our local USFS offices. There was great uncertainty among the staff about the cuts that were being made as the two districts were combined, and morale was low. It was clear to me, based partly on my own career in the federal government, that there would be no significant turn-around in USFS budgets any time soon.

As I patrolled the Rawah, doing the best I could as a “lone” ranger to keep the trails clear and deal with large numbers of visitors around the many lakes, I reflected often on the USFS budget and staffing problems. I had come to love this wilderness. I was deeply concerned that with the budget cuts, it could not be properly cared for, especially as the number of wilderness visitors increased.

One day I hiked up the West Branch Trail, dropped my gear at a small, hidden campsite near the intersection with the Blue Lake Trail, then continued on to Island and Carey Lakes. I climbed over the top of the ridge north of Carey, dropped down to Twin Crater Lakes, then took the Rawah South Trail back to the West Branch, and back up to my campsite. During this energetic circuit, I met 113 wilderness visitors. As I lay in my tent that night, reflecting on the day and the dilemma of the USFS budget cuts, it became clear to me that the only realistic chance for managing this beautiful wilderness, and the other wonderful areas in our region, would be to establish a fairly large corps of trained volunteers.

The following week I headed into Fort Collins and discussed my idea with Karen Roth, my immediate supervisor in the Redfeather Ranger District, and with Estes-Poudre District Ranger, Mike Lloyd. Both gave me encouragement to see what I could do in getting something organized. However, as I talked to more people in the USFS office, it became clear I needed to tread carefully in building a volunteer ranger program. While people at the top were supportive, as were those dealing directly with the wilderness, I sensed hostility among other staff at the idea of a significant volunteer program, partly, I surmised, because it was seen as a threat to jobs, and partly because it was viewed as something else they would be forced to manage with their rapidly diminishing resources. A volunteer program like the one I envisaged would be quite a departure from the then-current USFS thinking. Accordingly, I realized any program undertaken would need to be largely self-administering, to minimize the amount of work imposed on USFS staff, and it had to be carefully in line with USFS policies and practices.

My next step was to approach my friend Art Bunn and enlist his help in founding the organization. Art readily agreed. After considerable discussion, and support and counsel from District Ranger Mike Lloyd, we decided we should “go the full route” and found our own non-profit group to provide volunteer rangers to the USFS. One of our first tasks would have to be recruiting a founding board of directors. We discussed several possibilities. Art had much better contacts in the community than I, and agreed to take on this task. I had a scheduled October trip to southern Africa for my bird-watching tour business. While I was gone, Art recruited the core of our first board.

At the beginning of December, we had a very good idea of what kind of organization we wanted. We arranged to visit the Indian Peaks Wilderness Alliance in Boulder, along with Mike Lloyd, Ron Strobel, and Martha Moran, who had replaced Karen Roth as manager of wilderness and trails. We first went to a joint meeting between officials of the Boulder Ranger District and the Alliance, then afterward went to an Alliance board meeting. From this visit, we decided if we were to work hand-in-hand with USFS staff, we had to make it very clear our organization would not engage in any environmental advocacy or try to tell the Forest Service what to do. Instead, we would engage only in supporting the mission and goals of our USFS ranger district. We also saw a need to structure our organization in such a way that we had regular turnover of leadership.

We had our first organizational board meeting in mid-December, 1995, and we met again in early January 1996. In December, we settled on the basics of our mission:  To help our ranger district manage and protect its wilderness and backcountry areas by recruiting, training, equipping and fielding volunteers to help educate forest visitors and serve as the eyes and ears of the USFS while on the trail. At the January meeting we kicked around a lot of ideas for our name and settled on Poudre Wilderness Volunteers.

As these basics took shape, I worked with our pro bono attorney Dave Williams (now a judge) to draft our Articles of Incorporation and our bylaws. In January, we approved the bylaws. I filed the Articles of Incorporation, then applied to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service for our tax-exempt status.

The board began its discussions of what kind of volunteers we wanted, and planning for our selection process, training and scheduling. The question of what kind of volunteers to recruit produced our first really lively debate. Some board members favored a small, highly dedicated, very well trained corps of physically fit young people ready to spend most of their summer on the trails. Others said we couldn’t recruit such a corps, as young people need to work for pay and couldn’t be expected to have the kind of time this would require to be a PWV volunteer. We settled on recruiting citizens like ourselves, of all ages, backgrounds and abilities, with the main criterion being a love for being out on the trail. We would then train them as much as we could. I thought up the phrase “Hike with a Purpose” to use in our recruiting publicity, an idea that from today’s perspective has served us very well.

Board member Kent Clements of the Wilderness Education Association agreed to put together our first training program. It would use the “Authority of the Resource” technique, developed by board member George Wallace, when contacting backcountry users. And it would train our volunteers how to teach “Leave No Trace” principles.

We had another lively discussion about whether we would have any volunteers on horseback. Board members George Wallace and Chuck Peterson were very persuasive in advocating a horse patrol. The board agreed.

With the name chosen, I visited local graphic designer Jeff Maust and asked if he would be willing to donate a design for our logo. Within a few days, he had produced a very attractive, meaningful logo. It was enthusiastically approved by the board.

In the meantime, Art and Mike Lloyd approached one of their neighbors, Will D’Arduino, who dealt with community support at Hewlett-Packard, for financial assistance. HP gave us a grant of $2,000 to help us get started.

In February, Art and I met with Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland Supervisor Skip Underwood, who was well apprised of our efforts and gave his full support. He agreed to host a news conference to formally launch our new organization. I set about contacting the media.

The news conference took place in early March, and was attended by all the area’s newspapers, two of the three TV channels from Denver, and some local weeklies and monthlies. The media coverage was excellent, and our volunteer phone line began to ring. We had 80 persons call to volunteer. We then had to put together an interview process to screen prospective volunteers and make sure they were suited to the kind of public contact we envisaged for our new organization.

Poudre Wilderness Volunteers was off and running.

The Continuing History of Poudre Wilderness Volunteers

A history of PWV would not be complete without a more comprehensive mention of our other founder, Art Bunn. Establishing a new volunteer group takes a lot of enthusiasm. Art has that in abundance, and is an excellent spokesman for PWV and our natural lands. His abilities as a successful sales executive contributed greatly to the successful founding of PWV. There is no limit to his generous nature, and he has always been willing to share his seemingly limitless knowledge of wilderness skills.

At this stage, the organization had a mission and a name, but a lot of fine-tuning was still to be done, and critical questions needed answers. How many volunteers is a manageable number? How is the spring training session to be organized? How do we decide how to schedule trails and even what trails to cover? How do we disseminate information and get reports back to the Forest Service? Terms of office for a board of directors had to be set, organizing committees appointed, budgets determined and a timetable set up for the interview process for applicants.

The minutes of the first board meeting, held December 13, 1995, are a benchmark for our rapid growth:  “Art said the goal is to have 50-70 volunteers who work three times during the summer and cover at least nine trails.” By our second season, we had well over 100 volunteers, and the yearly expectation rose to six patrols from each volunteer. The 1999 Field Guide shows we were already covering 40 trails.

Those first years were basic for the continuation of PWV. There were discussions and disagreements about every aspect of the fledgling organization, but the willingness of the first members to listen to each other with open minds enabled the group to get off to a good start. The first season ended with an amazing 109 volunteers, some fundraising success, and reports indicating the public responded favorably to meeting volunteers on the trails. A trail guide and web page began taking shape. A newsletter was distributed.

At the start of the second year, an indication of the success of the new organization was a request from Colorado State Parks to include patrols in Lory State Park. The request was reluctantly turned down; Forest Service lands would remain the focus of the group, since so much terrain was not being patrolled by USFS Rangers.

The second season started off with 130 members on the roster. However, it was decided additional volunteers could be absorbed and would make it easier to ensure that no one hiked alone. One of the main topics at the beginning of PWV’s second season concerned radios -– how to distribute them, how to get volunteers to use them, and where they were most needed. A trail crew to do maintenance was first mentioned. Scheduling and reporting improved greatly from the confusing and haphazard original methods. The horse patrol committee put a plan in action to prepare and train those members better. Recruiting and fund raising became easier as PWV gained recognition and visibility in the region.

Now the two-year terms of the original officers were up, and it was time to elect new faces. Term limits of officers on the board of directors were set to guarantee the organization would avoid stagnation and be continually infused with fresh ideas. However, after two successful years of leadership, PWV Directors felt it was too soon for Chuck and Art to relinquish the reins. Stability and continuity were needed, with so many ongoing projects and issues in the works. Major decisions had to be made about developing a more comprehensive field guide, horse patrols, continuing education and off-season seminars, computer programs, trail coverage and much more. Chuck and Art agreed, albeit reluctantly, to serve one more year.

As the third season came to an end, though, the baton was passed. The new board, with fresh enthusiasm, set out to swing the pendulum toward active administration and decision-making by the entire board of directors.

The new administration, led by Bill Dold as chairman, saw much revisiting, refining and advancement of programs, plans and policies that had been initiated during the previous years. Several new endeavors proved fruitful: The mentor program, whereby new volunteers hike with a specially trained experienced member, was instituted with much eventual success; PWV supplied keynote speakers for the first annual Wilderness Volunteers Workshop for the Forest Service Region 2, and subsequently hosted the second annual workshop; Board members Garin VanDeMark and Jacques Rieux attended Leave No Trace education to achieve master status and began teaching and certifying other PWV members as LNT trainers; A Memo of Understanding was written to formalize the relationship between the USFS and PWV and to confirm the original intent of maintaining a non-political stance.

One of the most successful innovations was conceived and developed by Paul Asmus, PWV member and retired Hewlett Packard trainer. The original training format centered around four stations that new members attended in sequence, listening to lectures at each. Paul and others created an entirely new experience, in which members being trained actually hiked in small groups, and along the way were faced with simulations of scenarios they were likely to encounter on the trails. This innovation was popular, very well received, and is used to this day, with occasional tweaks.

Other ideas proposed during this period and eventually turned into actualities include trailhead hosting and the development of a PWV Trail Maintenance Crew. Bylaws were amended to better reflect the organization, now out of its infancy, which is in keeping with the founders’ original intention of not allowing PWV to become static or ossified.

After an incident involving a volunteer’s dog and another dog on the trail, and much emotional discussion and strong opinions on both sides, a policy was made that members cannot patrol with a dog. Liability issues created this change, as well as the fact that PWV complies with the rules and regulations of the USFS as they apply to rangers in this area. PWV does not have many actual policies, but instead uses guidelines to direct members.

The original PWV Field Guide, which had been developed by Frank Lilley and many other founding members, underwent an extensive revision, shepherded by Dave Cantrell. Members were asked to contribute suggestions about what parts of the guide needed improvement, revision, or could be eliminated. John Paul Lumpp, a graphic designer and PWV member, added many features and gave the guide a fresh, professional look that also made it easier to use. The Guide became the go-to source for trail information and knowledge of what we do and how we do it. A public edition was developed, published, and sold in area stores, and proved popular with non-PWV hikers as well.

Garin VanDeMark formed a task force to streamline board functions. His ideas were welcomed, and he was tapped to become the next chair. A statement from an early board meeting proved prophetic:  “We need to keep good notes on our process and progress because it could be a model for future volunteer programs.” By its fifth year, PWV was seen nationwide as a model volunteer organization. Similar groups all over the country sought advice and information on how to become as successful.