The trail to St. Mary Peak has always been one of the Bitterroot National Forest’s most popular, but last summer was off the charts.
Selway Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation volunteers have staffed the lookout tower on St. Mary Peak for the last decade. Last year, they counted 1,777 people on top of the mountain in July and August. That was a 23% increase from the year before.
This summer, hikers will have an opportunity to interact with foundation volunteers at the trailhead as part of the Bitterroot Forest’s first Trailhead Volunteer Ambassador program. The program was funded by a Resource Advisory Committee grant.
Like many of the trails into the mountains on the west side of the Bitterroot Valley, the St. Mary Peak trail crosses into the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness.
Stevensville District Ranger Steve Brown said he met several hikers on the trail last summer who had never before ventured into a wilderness area.
“There were several weekend days last summer where the lookout volunteers counted more than 100 people on the peak in a day,” Brown said. “With that amount of use, we’re fairly certain people are taking that hike who don’t understand the purpose of wilderness or the charge that we have in managing it.”
“We saw the ambassador program as an opportunity to educate people on wilderness in a place that gets a lot of use,” he said.
Volunteers with the program will offer information on trail safety, how to prepare for the hike, responsible trails use and Leave No Trace principles. The ambassadors will also record visitor use information and could perform routine trailhead maintenance.
Krissy Ferriter, the foundation’s volunteer coordinator, said volunteers are still being recruited. Anyone interested can call the foundation at 406-721-8500 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The plan calls for volunteers to spend time at the trailhead either in the morning or the afternoon in three-hour shifts.
“We have a few folks signed up so far,” Ferriter said. “If I end up with enough people, I would love to have ambassadors at the trailhead on more days than Saturday … This year we hope to get our feet wet. If this is successful, we would like to have more volunteers next season at other popular trailheads.”
“We want to do what we can to help people know what it means to be a respectful trail user,” she said. “There are more people accessing public lands. That’s good because it means more people care about them, but there’s a right and wrong way to go about it.”
Brown said the partnership between the Bitterroot Forest and Selway Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation at St. Mary Peak has been beneficial for both entities.
“Their volunteers have been able to get the experience of manning a lookout in the wilderness and have the opportunity to talk with all of the people who come to visit in the summer,” Brown said. “Having someone to man the tower has been helpful for us. You can see the whole east side from the lookout. They called in a couple of fires for us last year.”
Brown hopes that people who care about the future of the St. Mary Trail and the surrounding wilderness will consider serving as trailhead ambassador.
“It will be a chance to make a difference in terms of how people use the wilderness and ultimately appreciate the wilderness,” he said.