We checked in with Annette Smits, the North Zone Trails Coordinator for the Gila National Forest ahead of our returning service project there, June 8 – 14, 2014. We asked Annette about the area, her work and how to help, among a number of other topics.

Tell us about the most unique aspect of the wilderness area that you manage. What draws visitors here?

In my zone (I cover 3 districts of the Gila) we cover 2 wilderness areas-all of the Blue Range and the western half of the Gila Wilderness, as well as General Forest Areas (GFA) and Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRA).

For the Blue Range the most unique feature is likely solitude, I can think of few other areas that give the user a chance to truly get away from it all. We have amazing dark skies, great hunting, and opportunities to catch glimpses of wildlife of all sorts from elk to raccoons or hear wolves howling in the distance.

For the Gila, the biggest draw is that it is one of the original wilderness areas, where Aldo Leopold got some of his inspiration. Where the green fire died in the wolf’s eyes. The western half has extremely rugged terrain that draws people looking for a challenge.

Tell us about the most important types of projects a group of volunteers can do to help in your wild backcountry areas.

Trail work. In my opinion trails bring people into our great public lands and give them the opportunity to experience them and grow to love them. Trail work is hard work in that is very demanding in terms of resources. Trails serve as a means to concentrate use, and reduce impact to natural resources (for example we typically route our trails away from sensitive resources whether cultural or biological). I think if we provide a sound way for people to come out and enjoy our backcountry they will start to love them and want to protect them.

Why do you work with Wilderness Volunteers?

We partner with WV, because we need help. What makes WV such an ideal group to work with is the continuity of leadership, the ease of working with leaders who are already savvy about being out in the woods and leaving no trace, and the general professionalism of Wilderness Volunteers as an organization. 

About the WV service project:
Our projects have been on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) construction. Currently much of our route of the CDT is on roadways, where non-motorized users are competing for space with trucks and ATVs. For the last few years we have been working on creating a new trail where people can enjoy the panoramic vistas, in the peace and quiet that the Gila is known for. In the still of the forest a user can catch glimpses of herds of elk, bobcats, deer, bears, various birds, coyotes, and other wildlife. It may be a personal bias here, but these things can make for an outstanding trip whether out for the day or on a longer trip. In partnering with WV we are giving more people the chance for these experiences. The way in which WV operates make them an extremely easy group to work with. There is always going to be set up time with any project, but due to good planning and working with the same leadership every time the amount of work that goes into a WV trip is much less than what is generally expected with volunteer groups in general. Working with WV, all that I really need to do is show up with tools, safety equipment, and water the rest of the in and out day-to-day logistical stuff is covered by WV. Any trip that is being coordinated by WV is one that as I can count on as being a productive week as a land manager, and an enjoyable week on a personal level.
How can folks continue to give back to your area when not on a WV project?

Being our eyes and ears out in the field. I cover about 1½  million acres in my zone, so needless to say there are a lot of things that I don’t know about as far as day to day stuff. Though we may or may not be able to deal

with the issue rapidly, the sort of things that are very helpful for us to know about are:

·        Water and spring conditions (or lack thereof)- this is the most common question I get asked, and being in the southwest water is almost always scarce. If at least I could say as an example- as of June 18th there was water in spring x. At least it’s a bit more certain than a guess.
·        Noxious weeds- this is starting to become more of an issue in our areas. If we have the opportunity to find and remove these outcropping while they are still small we have a much better chance of removing them.
·        Trail conditions- not necessarily a single tree down, but if there are excessive numbers of them down, trail has extreme washouts, if the trail is very difficult to find, or anything that looks out of the ordinary out there.