Wilderness Monitoring

SUCCESS! We completed the 2022 monitoring season!

By Andrew Linker and Lauren King

2022 was a big step for expanding our monitoring efforts. A strong suite of Georgia ForestWatch has always been the ability to respond to national forest proposed actions. This “reactionary” style of monitoring can be effective and important when encouraging land managers to test techniques on small areas before risking many acres, and suggesting more natural methods of management to achieve the project goals. This year, we took a proactive approach of helping collect useful and required data in our national forests for the Forest Service BEFORE actions are proposed from the top down. 

ForestWatch has engaged in proactive volunteer monitoring in the past with overly technical road surveys and collecting GPS tracks for off road and illegal activity in sensitive areas, but this year we had clear goals, an established system, and amazing partners who helped it all come together!

A huge thank you to Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) and the Forest Service for allowing us the opportunity to utilize volunteers to monitor and collect foot traffic data in designated wilderness areas. 

Casey Helton, a Georgia ForestWatch Intern from University of North Georgia was instrumental in a successful first volunteer monitoring season. Casey truly committed to the effort and filled in when necessary, even if it meant changing plans last minute to accomplish our collective survey goals. 

And of course, a huge thank you to the volunteers who got out there in rain, heat, and cold to achieve 30 monitoring days June through October in 2022!

Just a few volunteers from 2022. Left to right: Andrew Linker, Andrea Timpone, Amanda and Taylor Stone, Drew Carter, Casey Helton.

The baseline inventory for solitude monitoring was established in 2014 and adapted the National Minimum Protocol for solitude monitoring. The method provides a simple, repeatable process for measuring both the volume and variety of visitor use on wilderness trails for the Blue Ridge and Chattooga River Ranger Districts. Data was collected again in 2016 by SAWS Rangers across the region. In 2022, SAWS partnered with Georgia Forestwatch to lead the pilot year of a volunteer solitude monitoring program in an effort to complete the Wilderness-wide survey for solitude across five years.

The collected data should be used to improve wilderness stewardship by informing managers’ understanding of the wilderness they manage, how wilderness character is changing over time, and why changes may have occurred. 

1) Appalachian Trail (AT) from Woody Gap to Jarrard Gap. 109.72 individual encounters/period. A popular trailhead off of Hwy 60, Woody Gap is the gateway to Blood Mountain Wilderness for backpackers and day hikers alike. 

2) Blood Mountain Wilderness from Byron Herbert Reece Memorial Trail (originally called AT from Jarrard’s Gap to Neel’s Gap) 111.18 individual encounters/period. A five-mile section, one of the most popular places to hike on the Chattahoochee, thanks to the view from the top of Blood Mountain. 

3) Raven Cliffs Trail/Wilderness. 132 individual encounters/period. This 2.6-mile trail is only a few minutes from Helen, GA, an immensely popular tourist destination, and offers a relatively easy journey up Dodd Creek to Raven Cliffs Falls. The destination, beginner-level hiking opportunity, and proximity to the tourism hub of Helen all contribute to the intensive use seen on this trail.

This report not only helps us establish direct impact internally with volunteers, programs, and partners, it also directly correlates with Georgia ForestWatch 2023 goals of improving forest infrastructure that is degrading waterways, increasing law enforcement to prevent environmental destruction, and education surrounding recreation and Leave No Trace principles. 

The data gathered in 2022 is primarily useful in continuing to establish trends and assess the quality of “Opportunities for Solitude” in the Wildernesses on the Blue Ridge and Chattooga River Ranger Districts.

It is possible that the jump in visitors can, at least in part, be due to the phenomenon of huge increases in visitation to public lands since the Covid-19 Pandemic. Second, the number of trail encounters in the Raven Cliffs Trail area continues to be higher than anywhere else monitored (so far). The results reinforce what the Forest Service agency already acknowledges is happening at Raven Cliffs:

Raven Cliffs trail. Photo by Andrew Linker

Impacts from overuse have led to unacceptable conditions on the ground. Degraded vegetation and metastasizing footprint of bare, compacted earth caused by the crowds.

Next Steps
To improve wilderness stewardship and opportunities for solitude in the Raven Cliffs and Blood Mountain Wildernesses, the following is recommended to the US Forest Service:

  • Set quantitative goals for decreased size and number of campsites, tread repaired or replaced to meet USFS parameters for sustainable wilderness foot trail design, and a decreased overall number of users.
  • Indirect management techniques for visitors use include:
    • Physical design and alterations (improve, maintain or neglect roads or campsites; make trails more or less difficult.)
    • Information and education programs (information to redistribute use, advertise recreation opportunities in surrounding area, outside wilderness, LNT education programs)
    • Entry & eligibility requirements (charge visitor fee, require proof of wilderness knowledge or group permits)
  • Direct management techniques for visitors use include
    • Increased enforcement (impose fines, increase surveillance of area) Zoning (limit camping to setbacks from water or other features)
    • Rationing use (limit usage via access point or limit camping to designated campsites only)
    • Restrictions on activities (prohibit certain types of use or restrict building of campfires)

In addition to supporting the above recommendations from a land management perspective, we all can help educate ourselves and others. Tangible ways we can do our part to inform and educate:

  • Plan hikes in other areas away from these wilderness hotspots
  • Mention the overuse when friends suggest these hikes, and have another recommendation on hand to preserve wilderness character. 

Thanks for your help in keeping our special areas intact and cherished for generations to come!

See SAWS 2022 C-ONF Solitude Monitoring Program Year 1 Assessment

We collect the data from June-October
for five weekdays and five weekends per monitoring area per year.

Wilderness Monitoring

Volunteers Needed!

Join our email list below for training resources and for what we consider the best volunteer opportunity of the year!

We are seeking volunteers to provide valuable data to the US Forest Service (USFS) about Wilderness areas in Georgia. After a short virtual or in-person training, you can sign up to hike along the Appalachian Trail and other popular trails and document the number of visitors you encounter. This is a great opportunity for college credit in applicable courses such as social change, environmental studies, land management, and/or GIS.

Since the Wilderness Act of 1964, we have been fortunate to have permanently protected areas of land where one can go to get away from the hustle and bustle of development and human noise. We call these protected areas Wilderness (with a capital “W”) and we want to keep them wild, for our sake and for the wonderful native plants and animals found there.

Georgia ForestWatch, in partnership with Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) and the US Forest Service, is coordinating trained volunteers and communicating valuable data so USFS Recreation Managers can make the best decisions regarding Wilderness areas

Georgia ForestWatch’s mission is to enhance the health of over 867,000 acres of Georgia’s national forest by protecting our forests and streams, advocating for natural processes, and identifying opportunities to improve forest management.

Are you interested in counting visitors along favorite trails? Help collect data on the number of people and dogs along a trail listed below:

YEAR 2 (2023)

Coosa/Bearhair/Slaughter (BMW)
AT Neel Gap to Hogpen Gap (RCW)
AT Chattahoochee Gap to Unicoi Gap (MTW)

YEAR 1 (2022)

Raven Cliffs Falls (Raven Cliffs Wilderness)

This trail leading up to Raven Cliff Falls is one of Georgia’s most heavily used trails in the Wilderness.

AT Blood Mt/Byron Herbert Reece (Blood Mountain Wilderness) 

One of the most popular places to hike on the Chattahoochee National Forest, thanks to the view from the top of Blood Mountain.

Woody Gap to Jarrard Gap (Blood Mountain Wilderness)

Located where the Appalachian Trail crosses GA 60, Woody Gap is the southern entrance into the Blood Mountain Wilderness. A popular trailhead for both day-hikers and backpackers taking on multiday trips with a year-round water source.

Questions: Please contact OUTREACH@gafw.org