David Fanning talks about hiking, tennis and the PWV

Last summer we met the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers (PWV) at the New West Fest in Fort Collins. Instantly we were impressed with the professionalism, organization and complete and utter awesomeness of this group of volunteers. 

Photo courtesy Rawah Ranger

Photo courtesy Rawah Ranger

David Fanning serves on the Board of Directors of the PWV and as we’ve gotten to know him over the past year I thought it would be fun to interview him and let him talk about the mission, goals and future of the PWV. David also recently started the informative and entertaining blog, Rawah Ranger.

Be sure to leave any comments that you have for David and read all the way down to the last paragraph…after a not-so-fun hike in the rain with my kid’s yesterday morning where I just wanted to give up on this outdoor parenting thing his message reassured me that my children need to be out on the trails, learning and loving nature…rain and all.

What is the mission of the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers?

The mission of PWV is to assist the Canyon Lakes Ranger District of the USFS in managing and protecting wilderness and backcountry areas within its jurisdiction. In practice, this means recruiting and training citizen volunteers, now over 300 of us, to serve as backcountry rangers, patrolling over 60 trails in our District.

We like to think of ourselves as the “eyes and ears” of the Forest Service. We collect data on what people are doing in the backcountry, how many of them are there, and what kind of violations of wilderness regulations we see. The data we collect is meant to drive Forest Service management decisions with respect to protecting the wilderness resource.

Our primary job is to educate the people we find in the backcountry on ways they can help us protect the resource. We use an Authority of the Resource approach and Leave No Trace principles when we interact with the public. This means we rarely talk about wilderness regulations, but we spend a lot of time talking to people about what the wilderness needs from us if it is to be a haven and inspiration to our children and future generations.

Most of us travel in the backcountry because we love being out there. Our primary goal is to teach people how not to love it to death.

PWV in action. Photo courtesy PWV.

PWV in action. Photo courtesy PWV.

 How did you get started? What were some of the challenges that you initially faced? Would it be possible for someone to start something like the PWV in their own local National Forest?

One of my passions is tennis. It is quite easy for me to spend the entire summer playing in tennis leagues and tournaments. Several years in a row, at the end of the summer, I asked myself how many times I had gotten into the mountains, which was the reason I had moved to Colorado in the first place. The answer was always “Not once!”

So, I joined PWV in 2008 to have a built-in excuse to play less tennis and get into the mountains at least six times a summer. (Our commitment as PWV volunteers is to do a minimum of six patrols.)

Now, oddly, I rarely play tennis in the summer, although I still play avidly the rest of the year. I much prefer to spend my summers backpacking and cutting trees off trails with my Corona saw. Go figure!

My initial challenge was to find people to patrol with. I literally did not know a single person in PWV to start with. So, I allowed PWV to schedule patrols and backpacking trips for me with people I didn’t know. This has been great! In fact, I still do it. I get paired with all kinds of interesting people I would never have met otherwise. Getting to know people who love to hike and backpack as much as I do has been one of the best things about joining PWV for me.

It is certainly possible to start a group like PWV wherever you live. In fact, PWV helped form an organization, the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance, whose sole purpose is to help local groups do exactly that.

How would someone get involved with the PWV? Do you have to have a lot of time to commit or outdoor experience? How are you funded?

Recruiting starts in late January and early February with some Open Houses to explain who we are and what we do. We accept applications and conduct interviews in April. In May we have a mandatory three-day training program for all new recruits.

The highlight of the weekend is the Training Trail. This is an actual hike where “actors” simulate situations PWV volunteers are likely to encounter on a patrol. Recruits have the opportunity to interact as if they were on patrol and use the Authority of the Resource approach that is the cornerstone of our approach to outdoor education.

After the training, each recruit goes on two patrols with PWV mentors, and then four more patrols with experienced PWV members. Once you have completed your six patrols you are considered a full PWV member and can participate in other programs (trail maintenance crew, Kids in Nature, trail restoration projects, etc.) that PWV offers in addition to trail patrolling.

Every once in a while they even rescue a puppy! Photo courtesy PWV.

Every once in a while they even rescue a puppy! Photo courtesy PWV.

We ask each member of PWV to patrol six times during the patrol period, which is now most of the year, with the exception of hunting season, when we are asked to stay out of the mountains for safety reasons. Our normal summer patrol season is from May through September. And our winter patrol season is January through April. Most people do their six patrols during the summer patrol season.

You don’t need to have a great deal of outdoor experience to join PWV. In fact, many people join because they would like to improve their outdoor skills. We have a supplemental training program that offers classes throughout the year in outdoor skills. Our ultralight backpacking class, which I help teach, is one of the most popular, but we have map and compass and GPS classes, First-Aid classes, an edible mushroom class, geology classes, etc.

In addition, we have monthly affiliation meetings where we invite a speaker to give a talk on a topic of interest to our members. These often involve some kind of outdoor skill or adventure. This year we started a Get Into Wilderness! initiative to pair an experienced PWV leader with less experienced members to help them backpack or horse pack into a wilderness area. We have probably already introduced a couple dozen new people into the wilderness who wouldn’t have gone otherwise.

We are a 100% volunteer organization, and we are funded almost exclusively from generous local contributions and charitable organizations. Our operating budget is extremely low. Most of the money we raise goes directly into providing resources for protecting wilderness. Right now, for example, we are buying a lot of tools to help with our on-going trail restoration work to recover from the fires and floods of the past couple of years. We want to have enough tools and supplies to get the public involved with helping in this effort. We often use our own funds to purchase building materials for bridges and other trail structures that the Forest Service doesn’t have the budget to provide.

What does the future look like for the PWV and some of our favorite hiking destinations in Northern Colorado?

This is an interesting question. The PWV Board of Directors will be holding some workshops later this summer to ask themselves exactly this question. What kind of an organization do we want to be, now and in the future? Our goal is to identify our objectives, and come up with a five-year strategic plan to meet them. PWV is growing up (we are 18 years old now), and our growth over the last few years has been such that we feel a bit scattered in terms of programs and attention. We expect the workshops will help us define and focus on exactly what is most important to us.

In terms of trails, there is no question things are improving. On my last patrol of the Greyrock Trail, 18 of the 21 dogs I encountered were on a leash. When I started in 2008, it would have been exactly the opposite of that. The Rawah trails are pristine compared to how they looked 30 years ago. We are doing a pretty good job of getting people to camp away from the lakes, to give the moose and other wildlife a break. Almost everyone packs their trash out now. I think education works, and I think you can see the results on all our trails in Northern Colorado.

What’s the one piece advice you’d give to someone heading into the backcountry for the first time?

Don’t go into the backcountry with the idea of visiting a wilderness. Go into the backcounty with the idea of becoming an integral part of it. If you can feel as though you are a participant in the ecological mystery, that you belong in its weft and warp, that it embraces and includes you, you will intuitively know how to treat it. And, of course, take some water and a rain jacket with you.

I see you have started your own hiking and travel blog. What’s that about?

Yes, as I transition into retirement, I find I have more time and interest in writing. I wanted to create a venue for more personal and thoughtful essays on what wilderness and travel mean to me. I’ve written several technical books, but I like this kind of writing because it helps me figure out what I believe and what I think is important in my life. A recent post on a misadventure involving survival skills (http://rawahranger.com/2014/07/practicing-to-survive/) has gone viral (sigh…) and made me a poster boy for backcountry ineptness. I wanted some attention, but I found I should be careful about what I wish for.

Anything you’d like to add?

DF quote.jpg

This is the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act. I worry about who is going to care about Wilderness 50 years from now. If anyone, it will be our children, of course. We need to get young people away from their electronic gadgets and into the backcountry now. It is critically important. People protect what they love. It is impossible to love something you don’t experience as real and meaningful in your life. I’d like to see our trails filled with young people, learning to care about what is so vitally important to me.

How’s that for an informative and inspirational interview? Thanks David! You can find out more about the PWV and David here:

PWV Web Page: http://www.poudrewildernessvolunteers.org/
PWV Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/PoudreWildernessVolunteers
Rawah Ranger Blog: http://rawahranger.com/
Rawah Ranger Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/RawahRanger
Twitter: @RawahRanger

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