COLORADO SPRINGS — By all accounts, 2020 has been a hectic year for everyone and the same holds true for the Rocky Mountain Field Institute as they work to best protect and care for our public land during an unprecedented surge in usage.
The Colorado Springs-based group, supported by donors and a number of partners, annually engages thousands of volunteers in the stewardship of public lands.
"In a normal year we are typically engaging thousands of community volunteers from all types of backgrounds and, experiences, age levels; it's awesome, [we] offer hundreds of volunteer opportunities," stated Jennifer Peterson, the Executive director for RMFI.
This year, however, the organization, while maintaining a proficient seasonal staff, has significantly reduced their number of volunteer opportunities as a response to COVID-19 and in an attempt to keep both volunteers and staff members safe.
"I think at this point in the year, we've maybe offered less than 20 volunteer opportunities and worked with a few hundred volunteers compared with a few thousand," said Peterson.
In stark contrast to the decrease in volunteer hours going into the trail and public land work, the usage of Colorado public lands, according to RMFI, has jumped to, "unprecedented levels."
"It's kind of a catch 22, we want people to be outside, that is a great thing; however, what we are seeing is a lot of first-time users enjoying the outdoors, and a lot of times first-time users just don't really understand how to use the trails in a responsible way," said Peterson.
RMFI staff hopes that as Coloradans continue to see the benefits of well-maintained public lands, more people will choose to get involved in volunteering with various trail and public lands stewardship groups as well as take steps to ensure they are utilizing the spaces while adhering to 'leave no trace' ethics.
"The silver lining out of this whole crisis is just that," commented Peterson, "we've always shared the message of how important public lands are and how important it is to spend time outdoors and time in nature. It is so critical, for not just physical well being, but mental and emotional well being as well. Now I think we are experiencing it first hand and experiencing it at all levels."
Looking towards 2021, RMFI is already planning ahead, working with partners and donors to focus on the areas that need the most attention. The plan is to get back to working with volunteers on a normal level compared to year's past.
"I honestly think that partnerships and collaboration across the spectrum are going to be more important than ever to make sure that we're hitting all the priority areas and making sure these priority landscapes are well maintained for future generations," said Peterson.