April 29, 2021
The idea of treading lightly is something that has been gathering steam in recent years as hunters, anglers, off-roaders, and others who enjoy the outdoors look for ways to enjoy their chosen pastimes in America's wild places.
There's no shortage of such places in the state of Utah, including the Manti-La Sal National Forest region in the eastern portion of the Beehive State, a land of empty spaces filled with soaring mountainsides, desert canyons, lots of big game animals, and vertical climbs that will burn calories by the truckload.
In short, it's the kind of place where the siren call is strong for outdoors enthusiasts like Evan Robins, a 36-year old from Clearfield, Utah who loves roaming the state's backcountry with a traditional bow or a five-weight fly rod in his hand.
"I'm a Utah native and I love bowhunting and fly fishing," said Robins. "I grew up doing all of that, all of the time. When it comes to hunting, I've been bowhunting elk and mule deer here since I was 10."
He's been roaming alpine lakes and bubbling trout streams almost as long, along with using his fly rod to target some of Utah's lesser-known species, things like tiger muskies, walleye, and wipers (landlocked striped bass).
But it's the pull of the bow, the September bugles of a bull elk, and the glint of antlered mule deer fuzz in a high alpine basin that has the strongest pull on Robins.
"It's an archery hunter's paradise in Utah and every year, I'm somewhere in the mountains with my bow and a tag for an elk," he said. "Our bow seasons start in late August and I'm soon out there calling elk, hunting until I either get a bull or eat tag soup. I'm looking forward to this fall – in fact, I've got 13 or 14 points and I could probably draw La Sal if I tried."
If the outdoors lifestyle of hunting and fishing is important to Robins, so too is the wild terrain—and most of the time, public lands—that most of his adventures take place on. So much so that a little more than nine years ago, he decided to do more than just enjoy some of the best recreation west of the Great Plains.
In fact, he decided to roll up his sleeves and go to work to help keep the trail gateways open to some of the Rocky Mountain West's best outdoors terrain, much of it found in his home state. And he did so quite literally, accepting a job with Tread Lightly!, which is dedicated to helping hunters, anglers, and off-roaders enjoy America's public lands.
“I love our public lands and I want to see access to them continue on and even get better and I'm all about making positive changes on the landscape for wildlife,” said Robins, who is the education and stewardship program manager for Tread Lightly! “I love public lands, I love hunting and fishing, and that's why I took the job I've got.”
Like the rest of his co-workers, Robins believes responsible recreation is in the hands of those who enjoy using our natural resources from hunters and anglers to off-road vehicle aficionados to horse riding enthusiasts to campers and hikers and more.
Ultimately, Robins is convinced the future of public lands, recreation on those lands, and wildlife and fisheries conservation across America revolve around what we all do collectively as critical needs are addressed and hard, boot leather-on-the-ground kind of work makes a good thing even better.
While Tread Lightly! does plenty in the way of education and communication according to Tread Lightly! executive director Matt Campbell, stewardship partnerships that make a difference on the ground is one of the things the group does best.
"Because of our relationships with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, we are made aware of issues that others might not be aware of as quickly," said Campbell. "We go get a partner on a project, plan it out, work with our agency partners to make sure it is approved, and then bring it to those volunteers who are able to help go out and make it happen."
One of those efforts took place not too long ago in the Manti-La Sal, a National Forest spot that features rugged terrain, abundant natural resources, and striking views like those found at La Sal Pass and the nearby summit of 12,726-foot Mount Peale, the highest spot in the Beehive State outside of the Unita Mountain Range.
As an outdoors Mecca that lures hunters chasing trophy bull elk and mule deer, as well as fishing enthusiasts, campers, hikers, and off-road vehicle owners, the area has become increasingly popular as outdoors recreation grows in popularity during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In short, as such places grow increasingly crowded by those discovering their beauty and outdoors riches, they are in danger of being loved to death.
And that's why projects like the one finished recently by Tread Lightly! are so important. According to Robins, they help financially strapped government agencies do things like important maintenance work that helps keep public access points open for hunters, anglers, hikers, campers, and motorized vehicle users.
“The project took place on La Sal Pass from September 30th-October 2nd (in 2020), the purpose of the project was to better delineate the motorized route in order to maintain access over La Sal Pass and to protect the sensitive alpine meadows and parks that provide vital habitat for the abundance of wildlife that exists along the base of Mount Peele,” he said.
“During the work days USFS staff, Tread Lightly!, Grizzly Outdoor Corps and 8 dedicated public land volunteers built a post and rail barrier that better protects the sensitive habitat above the trail, better delineates the trail and the parking location to access the upper basins on the La Sal Range and extends the time that hunters, fishermen and motorized recreationists can access the pass.”
While projects like this might not seem like much to some outside the West, they are significantly important according to Campbell.
"I was on a podcast (recently) and one of the things we focused on was that with the influx of new people into outdoors recreation as a whole within the last year because of COVID, closures become a real issue when maintenance becomes just too big of an issue for a government agency to handle on their own," he said. "That's why trails close, and once they do, it takes time for them to reopen."
If actually rolling up your sleeves and putting in some groundwork in a stakeholder's type of project is one way to make a difference, Campbell notes that there are other ways too.
One of those is to simply join a group like Tread Lightly! or some other advocacy or conservation organization that is aware of various issues arising across the public landscape. Once those needs become apparent, groups like Tread Lightly! go to work to effectively communicate with members and volunteers about such needs and provide avenues to make a real difference on America's wildlands.
“Whether it's Tread Lightly! or another group, helping to make a difference can be as simple as that, simply becoming a member,” said Campbell. “We work hard to provide information that individuals might not know about. One advantage that we've got in providing such information is that we've got good relationships with government agencies, clubs, industry partners, etc. and that helps us see where those needs are a little easier.
“Because of that, we can communicate it to our members quickly, get some action on the ground and cause results to happen as we communicate and go forward.”
Another way to make a noticeable impact in the outdoors world is to simply take personal ownership of that process, doing what you can daily at the street level view to make the outdoors world and our nation's natural resources a better place for all.
“At the simplest level, we simply need less talk and more action,” said Campbell. “It might not seem like very much, but the action of simply packing out what you pack in can make a big difference when it's multiplied out. Sure, we'd love for a lot of people to get involved with Tread Lightly!, become a member and participate in our stewardship projects, but we can all do our part to make a difference at the most basic level.”
From packing out trash to letting an elected official know your thoughts on issues and desired solutions to actually putting on some boots and climbing high into the backcountry to go to work on maintenance projects on some popular National Forest ground, the act of taking simple steps can ultimately help achieve some surprisingly bigtime results.
Aside from group membership, personal involvement, hard work and even financial contributions towards helping impact the wildlands across America, one final way that people can make a difference outside their front door is to simply show some respect to others who might not approach a natural resource issue the same way or see it from the same vantage point. It might sound like a cliché, but we all really do need the contributions of everyone, especially when it comes down to making a difference in something as big and grand as the Great Outdoors.
Campbell points out that it's easy to let others know your feelings about something in the digital world. But it's something entirely different to become personally involved like Robins did and actually put in some significant sweat equity to make a difference, whether you're a staffer, a volunteer, or just simply interested in finding better hunting, fishing, and off-road adventures in the outdoors.
Truth be told, making a difference sometimes seems like exclusive territory for only a select few. But the Tread Lightly! leader notes that the view from the proverbial mountaintop always begins with the first simple step forward.
“We need more lead by example, rather than lead by complaining,” said Campbell. “We can all play a part in finding solutions, but it really comes down to whether we will choose to play that part or not.”
Hopefully, in addition to applying for coveted hunting tags, practicing with a bow or gun, running miles to get into shape, or hiking to a remote alpine lake or stream to cast a dry fly for rainbows, browns, and cutthroats, our nation's outdoors enthusiasts will take it even a step further the rest of 2021.
And that's by doing what they can on a personal level to help keep our nation's public land resources open for all to use, helping further the conservation efforts ongoing to keep such places teeming with wildlife and fish, and making the outdoors a better place for all who love to roam the backcountry outside their front door.
It's a big task, for sure, but a task everyone can help with by taking a few simple steps into the wild.