Every week during the summer, Darla Mazzoni puts on her Forest Service uniform, straps on a backpack full of supplies, and heads out into Desolation Wilderness for three or fours days of patrolling with her yellow lab Max.
The South Lake Tahoe resident picks a trailhead into the 63,960 acres of federally protected wilderness and hikes 6 or 7 miles to the first backcountry lake. Once she sets up camp for the night, she walks around to each group of campers to educate them on Leave No Trace principles. The next morning, Mazzoni and Max trek deeper into the wilderness to the next lake, picking up trash along the way, and the routine continues.
Mazzoni is one of 40 volunteer rangers in Desolation Wilderness. But only a dozen volunteer in the Tahoe Basin portion of Desolation Wilderness, which makes up about 1/3 of the acreage, but gets more than 2/3 of the use.
"I just realized that Desolation is such a treasure. I was out there a ton always hiking and backpacking, and I was seeing the degradation of Desolation and I wanted to do something about it," said Mazzoni, who's spent the last six summers volunteering in Desolation when she's not teaching fitness classes at Lake Tahoe Community College.
She explains to hikers why they need to pack out their dog's waste, and to campers why they can't have fires or set up tents within 100 feet of water sources.
"I'm finding trash. I'm finding graffiti. Fire pits. Glass. It's heartbreaking to see it," said Mazzoni. "I feel driven to get out there and educate people and say it's not OK to do this."
It's no surprise given the trajectory of Desolation's usage, which jumped from 120,000 campers and hikers in 2006 to around 180,000 in 2016. By comparison, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado, which is almost three times larger than Desolation, saw 107,000 visitors last year.
The Desolation Wilderness was congressionally included in the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1969, four years after the Wilderness Act created the system.
The Wilderness Act is, as far as laws go, rather poetic. It describes wilderness as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." The act also mandates "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation."
It's a sentiment that's not lost on Desolation Wilderness Program Manager Don Lane, who brings up figures like John Muir and his romantic views of nature when talking about the management of wilderness. He has worked for the Forest Service for over 40 years and managed Desolation since the late '70s.
"I'm trying to do everything humanly possible to protect and manage that land for today's people and tomorrow's people," said Lane. "But we only have eight rangers, and the national budget goes down and resource agencies like the Park Service and Forest Service lose more and more support. With visitation growing like crazy, the only thing I can do as a wilderness manager is ask for volunteers — to reach out to the community and ask for help."
In 2003, Desolation Wilderness established its volunteer program. Volunteers can be found at trailheads educating visitors, out in the field monitoring resources, or working on trails.
Because the Wilderness Act prohibits roads, permanent structures or any mechanized machines, rangers must trek out into the backcountry on foot to remove trees with handsaws and manpower.
"We cut over 300 trees alone last year in Desolation using crosscut saws, not chainsaws," said Lane.
But with visitation on the rise and human impact the biggest threat to maintaining Desolation, Lane said they need more help.
"I need people in Tahoe who are willing to go through a little training, learn what wilderness is and why it's so unique and special," said Lane.
With more volunteers educating users on Leave No Trace ethics, Lane hopes it will minimize the impact on the wilderness area.
"We're not trying to put a quota on day hikes. That's not our heart. We want people to experience it," said Lane.
Currently, Desolation has quotas for overnight camping, but only requires day users to fill out a free permit, so they are exposed to the rules and the Forest Service can track usage. They also charge for parking.
"That money is the heart and soul of our wilderness program," said Lane. "It's how I pay my rangers."
For volunteers like Mazzoni, the increased pressure on Desolation Wilderness is worrisome.
"I just hope that Max and I can continue to get out there and educate people. This is our backyard and we have to protect it because it is so stunningly gorgeous out there," she said. "I really hope that people realize what a treasure we have."
The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit is currently recruiting volunteers for Desolation Wilderness. An upcoming training session is scheduled for June 2 from 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. at the LTMBU Supervisor's Office. For more information, visit http://www.desowv.org.