Wilderness lovers often see dismaying things on hiking trails: litter, thirsty people in flip flops who forgot to bring water, rambunctious dogs whose owners have never heard of leash laws, clueless couples who carve their names into trees. Instead of simply griping about these miscreants, some parks and wilderness areas have developed constructive ways to educate the public and make recreation safer and more fun for everybody. The Trailhead Ambassador Program at Oregon’s Mount Hood and Columbia River Gorge recruits volunteers to greet hikers at trailheads, answering questions and offering suggestions. Inhabitat talked to Lizzie Keenan, wilderness lover and co-founder of the program, about how trailhead ambassadors can make tangible differences in the local environment.

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Inhabitat: Tell us about your involvement with the Trailhead Ambassadors Program.

Lizzie Keenan: I co-founded the program with Friends of the Columbia Gorge in the summer of 2017. The program was a mesh of an idea the Mt. Hood and Columbia River Gorge Tourism Alliance had merged with Trail Talks, a program Friends of the Columbia Gorge piloted that summer. The Tourism Alliance, which I manage, has funded the bulk of the program since its inception, and I have been there every step of the way helping to shape and grow it into what it is today.

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Additional partners to get it launched included U.S. Forest Service for the Columbia River Gorge and U.S. Forest Service for Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon State Parks, and local tourism entities like Oregon’s Mt. Hood Territory. The idea came from increased feedback from our local communities in the region that search and rescue at our trails was at an all-time high, that congestion at trails was becoming unmanageable and there was a general call for help for educating visitors on best practices in our recreation areas. I did some research and found a couple of programs in different parts of the U.S. running something like what we were looking for. In the end, we mirrored a lot of our program from the White Mountain National Forest Trailhead Steward Program.

Inhabitat: What are some of the more unusual questions ambassadors have heard?

Keenan: Upon seeing the dog that our volunteers brought with them to the trail, a young boy asked, “Will I see other mountain lions like that one on the trail?”

Ambassadors working at Multnomah Falls have been asked by visitors, “How do I get to the Columbia River Gorge from here?” The answer is usually, welcome! You made it!

Someone asked at the Dog Mountain Trailhead, “Is there a restaurant or store on top of Dog Mountain, so we can buy food?”

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Inhabitat: What kind of traits should a volunteer have?

Keenan: Being a trailhead ambassador requires someone who enjoys talking with people. We ask that our volunteers study up on the trails they will be volunteering at so they can share advice with confidence and authenticity. Finally, ambassadors should love the region. Love the trails, the communities, the culture of the area. That translates to visitors loving and appreciating the land they are recreating on more.

Inhabitat: Have you seen any results?

Keenan: Yes! In our first season, which ran over the course of 20 weekends, our volunteers talked to over 23,700 visitors in the Gorge and on Mt. Hood. They helped to shape visitors’ experiences. Example actions visitors have taken after speaking with a trailhead ambassador include going to their car to get better shoes and/or water, taking a picture of the map of the trail so they can reference it on their hike, getting a parking pass when they didn’t have one already and much more.

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Other results include fewer car break-ins on the weekends that volunteers staffed the trails as well as a feedback loop of trail information that would go directly to the local land manager. One example of this was at Starvation Creek; after speaking with hikers in the area, the ambassadors found out there was a landslide on the trail. They were then able to inform Oregon State Parks about it, and soon rangers came in to close off that portion of the trail.

person holding hands with Smokey the Bear

Inhabitat: What kind of feedback have you received from visitors?

Keenan: It has been 99 percent thankful and supportive. Both regular recreators and new folks visiting from out of town have been incredibly thankful to have trailhead ambassadors stationed at their trail. Those who are local are thankful to have people sharing advice at the trails, because they have seen and helped unprepared visitors in the past. Those new to the trails are excited to have someone nice and approachable to talk to, to ask questions of and feel more confident about heading out on a new adventure.

Inhabitat: Do you have any advice for other places interested in starting similar programs?

Keenan: Borrow materials from another program who is running a program like the one you want to do; don’t recreate the wheel. Start small and develop your dedicated group of volunteers. Finally, collect data. This program has been a huge opportunity for us to learn and track common issues and trends at our trailheads that we and the other agencies involved can use to better serve the land and visitors in the future.

+ Trailhead Ambassadors Program

Images via Trailhead Ambassadors Program and Bureau of Land Management