Standing under a shade tent at the Powerdam Trailhead at Mill Creek on Saturday morning, Anna Sprout explained a “wag bag”—or portable human waste disposal system—to a group of inquisitive kids. The wag bags were one item on a display table that also had camping information, native species identification pamphlets and maps.
Staffing the table were the two new Trail Ambassadors, identified by their bright green uniform tee shirts, who welcomed hikers as they hit the trail, and offered safety and conservation information.
“I’ve always thought we’ve needed this,” Sprout said.
She and Ben Lutz are two of the first employees of the new initiative, which is a partnership between Grand County and the Bureau of Land Management. The program is overseen by the Grand County Division of Active Transportation and Trails, which designs, builds and maintains trails throughout the county and often partners with other land managers.
“Part of our mission is trail user education,” said GCATT Director Maddie Logowitz, explaining why her division was the logical entity to launch the trail ambassador program. “We talk about the desert ecosystem and the behaviors needed to help protect it with all of our volunteers, which number in the hundreds annually, and also the hundreds of trail users who we encounter while working out in the field.”
GCATT also ran a similar pilot program from 2018 to 2020 that focused on popular mountain biking trails. The new program will start out focused on three popular Moab-area trails on weekends during the busy tourism season of September and October. Teams of two will staff informational tables and rove the trails to deliver messaging.
Sprout said that when she worked at a local bike shop, shop employees did their best to give visitors information on staying safe and recreating responsibly. However, it was clear that with all the distractions of renting a bike and gathering equipment, some of the message was lost.
“This is the reminder that you probably need before heading out,” Sprout said. Reminders include bringing enough water and snacks, packing out trash (even if it’s biodegradable), and using the restroom before starting out on a hike. The ambassadors also explain the delicacy and importance of biocrust; recommend that hikers avoid spur “social” trails and stay on established main trails; and give safety warnings about cliff jumping.
Sprout is a ninth-grade math teacher at Grand County High School, and her ability to command attention is clear at the Trail Ambassador station. She rallies people to the table with a cheerful greeting and introductory questions: Where are you from? Have you ever hiked here before?
Some visitors were local, some were from other parts of Utah, and some were from other parts of the country, including Virginia and Wisconsin. Many had never been to Mill Creek, had learned about it on the internet, and were unsure of where they were going, what there was to see, or how long of a hike to expect.
Helping visitors have a safe and positive experience is one of three program objectives that Logowitz outlined. For many, getting directions and possibly a water bottle refill from the ambassador’s cooler at the trailhead could significantly improve their hike—and it could prevent a Search and Rescue call.
Another objective of the program is to promote minimum impact practices.
“For people coming from completely different environments, like Minnesota or Germany, the idea that our soil is alive and that stepping on it causes decades of environmental damage is not an intuitive one,” said Logowitz, referring to the biological soil crust that helps to prevent erosion, regulate water, and fix nitrogen for native plants.
Many visitors are also unaware of the volume of tourists that come to trails like Mill Creek. The ambassadors told hikers that Moab sees over three million visitors a year, emphasizing that human impact at that scale has a huge effect on natural areas.
The wag bags at the table are not just for display: ambassadors hand them out to people who are dispersed camping in areas with no restrooms, and explain how to use and dispose of them.
“The third objective is to educate visitors about etiquette that protects other trail users’ experience in the outdoors,” said Logowitz. “For example, visitors may not know that noise such as shouting and music echoes in the canyons and can be heard by people who are far away and out of sight, and that this disturbs other people as well as local wildlife.”
The ambassadors will start out at Mill Creek, Corona Arch and Grandstaff trails. The BLM keeps trail counters at these sites, which show that they are some of the most popular trails in the area and that there’s been a significant increase in visitation to them over the last five years. Mill Creek increased from 45,000 visits in 2017 to 85,000 visits in 2021 (data is not available for 2016). At Corona Arch, 37,846 visits in 2016 increased to 108,314 in 2021, and at Grandstaff, there were 54,000 visits in 2016 compared to 56,814 visits in 2021. The ambassadors will also staff the Moab Brands, Amasa Back, Navajo Rocks and potentially other trails as the need arises, Logowitz said.
The Powerdam/Mill Creek area has been a point of growing concern for the county. Numerous Search and Rescue calls for injuries from jumping from cliffs into the creek, traffic and parking concerns, ecosystem degradation and vandalism have demonstrated the need for education and management in the area. The Grand County Commission decided this past winter to allocate $15,000 in transient room tax revenue to fund the trail ambassador program. Job announcements for the ambassador position offered a starting wage of $17.39-$20.15 an hour, depending on experience and qualifications.
The new positions are one more element in the network of education and outreach efforts of land management agencies, local government, businesses, and nonprofits.
“No matter how many staff the BLM has, there’s still going to be a need for extra information exchange and increasing of awareness and education available to the recreating public,” said Jennifer Jones, recreation planner for the BLM. She noted that the local BLM field office oversees 1.8 million acres of land and sees over three million visitors, and employs just four park rangers. Those rangers are also roving trails and offering information and advice, but, Jones said, the more outlets for information there are, the better.
“We absolutely embrace the partnership with Grand County to get that information out as wide and far as possible,” she said.
She added that information about trails and camping has proliferated on the internet, and it doesn’t always come with details about safety, stewardship, and respect for private property. The BLM has contacted sites like AllTrails to provide important information on those topics to be shared on their pages. The trail ambassadors add another layer of outreach.
“This is a great way to talk to people right on site,” said Rachel Wootton, public affairs officer for the BLM in Moab.
Lutz moved to Moab about a year ago to enjoy the mountain biking and work as a rafting guide. He said that the more time he spent in Moab, the more interested he became in sustainability and environmental stewardship. He now works as a mountain biking guide and looks forward to conducting some ambassador shifts on a bicycle. He alternated with Sprout in ticking off the most important messaging points to visitors: stay on the trail, don’t bust the crust, drink enough water.
Visitors to Mill Creek on Saturday were largely receptive and appreciative of the ambassadors’ messages, asking questions and thanking them for their help. The team spoke with 224 people throughout the day and distributed 10 wag bags.
“We’re only had staff in the field for one weekend so far, but I was impressed by not just the amount of people that the trail ambassadors were able to talk to about issues important to our community, but also by the quality of the interactions,” said Logowitz. “People were excited to see the booth out there and we had lots of people walk up saying, ‘So, what do I need to know?’”
“This is a fantastic opportunity to expand the spider web of information-sharing,” agreed Jones.
During this first season, program organizers can gather information and evaluate the best approaches, and consider any changes or improvements to be made before starting again in the spring. The program may expand to cover more mountain biking and possibly motorized trails.
“I think this program has a lot of potential and hope that it continues and expands next year,” said Logowitz.