After yet another story about trash, Friends of the Inyo asked The Sheet to tag along with an employee to see what the non-profit was doing to mitigate the trash issue in the Eastern Sierra.
So for one day, The Sheet followed Alex Ertaud, Stewardship Director at Friends of the Inyo, up Duck Pass Trail to Barney Lake.
Ertaud has a story akin to many residents in the Eastern Sierra. He graduated from college during the Great Recession and did not have many options. So he took a job as a ski instructor and the Eastern Sierra started to grow on him.
Ertaud left the area to get his Masters degree from the University of Utah. But like so many others, found himself coming back.
Ertaud officially began his tenure as the Stewardship Director for Friends of the Inyo in September 2017. “Ideally we would have five trail ambassadors, one for each ranger station,” said Ertaud referencing the trail ambassador program staffing. Depending on funding, there have traditionally been between 2-4 full time trail ambassadors staffed during the summers.
This year, there is only one full time ambassador and one part time.
So what do these ambassadors do? Lindsay Butcher, the only current full time trail ambassador, told The Sheet, “On a normal day I am usually going up some trail. I check permits, I pick up trash, and I am usually doing some trail work along the way.
People are typically receptive to this type of work, “The reaction I get is pretty positive. Hikers are thankful that someone is out there doing the work,” said Butcher.
When the Sheet followed Ertaud up Duck Pass, the experience was exactly as Butcher had described.
Ertaud brought a shovel and other tools just in case he needed to clear trail. He removed any rocks larger than a fist from the trail, picked up trash, and attempted to talk to almost everyone that appeared to be camping, whether that be checking their permit, answering questions, or sharing general knowledge.
One of the 20 or so groups Ertaud talked to did not know they had to pack out their toilet paper.
“I’ve been doing this for four summers and I’ve picked up thousands of pounds of trash,” said Ertaud, “I’m glad it [the trash] is getting its moment and attention.
But this is a continuation of a
trend,” he added in describing the trash situation. Butcher posited that a lot of the agencies that traditionally are up there (U.S. Forest Service, police) are dealing with severe budget constraints that limit the number of people in recreation management.
Covid-19 and increased visitation has exacerbated the trash problem this summer.
“We need to do better to take care of our trash,” said Ertaud, “We can’t forget that all these things are still going to be a problem [next year].”
He stressed the need to maintain the image of “picking up trash and leaving no trace,” and praised Mammoth Lakes Tourism for its marketing campaign created to spread awareness.
The Forest Service’s lack of personnel has made this job tougher. Due to the visitor centers being closed, tourists just discovering the Eastern Sierra do not have an outlet for their basic information questions. “There are probably more first-time backpackers and people not accustomed to the Eastern Sierra. Because these ranger districts are closed, they are not getting a ‘leave no trace’ background of information,” said Butcher.
*A temporary Mammoth Welcome Center was reopened about two weeks ago.
Those personnel restraints cause more problems than just a lack of information. Friends of the Inyo attempts to fill in some of the gaps. For example, every 5-10 years, the USFS needs to do a campsite inventory for certain areas in the backcountry. This year, Friends of the Inyo sent some people into the wilderness to help out.
Overall, the trail ambassador program attempts to mitigate some of the issues that Eastern Sierra residents have been complaining about this summer.
When asked what the average person can do to help in this effort, Butcher said, “I would tell them to get involved with local organizations like Friends of the Inyo, or putting on trash drives through Facebook [shout-out to Sierra Trash Eliminators]. Another thing is to always hike with a trash bag. I was taught from a young age to leave a place better than you found it.”
One final question: “What is the difference between this program and the new Trail Host program that was created by the Town and MLTPA [Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access]?”
Ertaud responded, “I am not sure. I can only speak to what we are doing.” Ertaud stressed that he has a good relationship with Joel Rathje, the Mammoth Trails Manager and MLTPA – his boss Wendy Schneider sits on the board of that organization.
The Sheet then asked, “What would you have been able to do with the $14,000 MLT gave to the Town for the Trail Host program?” Ertaud said, “Well ours is a plug-and-play model. I could have had a full time trail ambassador almost as soon as I got the money.”
Again, Ertaud mentioned he had no qualms with any other organizations