GVLT's trail-steward program.

When I moved to Bozeman 16 years ago, it was uncommon for two hikers to pass one another without a smile and a greeting. I think we’ve slipped a bit in recent years, so I joined the Gallatin Valley Land Trust’s Trail Ambassador program. The Trail Ambassador table serves as a conversation area where “community” can be formed among trail users. When users see me re-stocking toilet paper and dog-waste bag rolls, picking up trash in the parking lot and scooping dog poop, trimming branches and pulling weeds, they see me as a resource rather than a “trail-compliance officer.” I’m constantly surprised by how many folks go out of their way to say “thank you,” and that opens the door for conversations about trail etiquette and conditions. I let them know that I have maps, a first-aid kit, and a host of other hand-outs if they ever find themselves in need of such resources.

On a Saturday afternoon in late spring, as I’m cutting a particularly nasty patch of burdock and stuffing the stalks and prickly seed heads into a garbage bag at the M trailhead, a young couple approaches hand in hand. “How’s it going?” I ask. A huge smile spreads across the man’s face, “I’m walking on air. I just asked her to marry me up at the M. And she said yes! You’re the first person we’ve told the news to.” I feel honored. Had I not been on the trail that day, I would’ve missed that.

A mother and college-age daughter emerge from the trail, and the mom reports, with pride, between deep breaths, “I didn’t think I could keep up with her, but we made it to the big lookout about a mile above the M.” I inform them that the popular name for the lookout is Yoga Rock. The daughter looks at her mom with pride and declares, “I think they should rename it Mom Rock, because my mom rocks.” Her mother turns to me and raises both fists in the victory pose. Had I not been on the trail that day, I would’ve missed that.

One of the reasons I joined the Trail Ambassador program was to try to make a positive impact on the way dog-owners use, and sometimes abuse, our local trail system. As a dog-owner myself, I don’t want to lose the privilege of hiking, running, and biking with my dogs beside me: it’s one of my greatest joys. Unfortunately, trailheads are littered with dog waste and leash regulations are widely ignored on our local trails. My goal is to help change these behaviors in both subtle and direct ways. I always take time to scoop dog poop—with bucket and bright red scooper—at trailheads when I’m wearing my Trail Ambassador shirt and hat. “It’s a shame you have to do that,” is the typical response from passers-by. “Dog-owners should be doing that themselves.”

Dog-owners often make a point of telling me that they not only pick up their own dog’s waste, but they also clean up other dog’s poo when they encounter it on the trail. Every dog-owner who passes me assures me that they have a poop bag, or they gladly take the bags I offer. With all of these assurances of compliance and model behavior from dog-owners, why is there so much dog poo stinking up every area trailhead? Why is most of it within 100 yards of a dog-waste station? Why do I find a fresh poo pile just 20 yards from the Trail Ambassador table near the end of my two-hour shift after only encountering those who assure me they are “responsible dog-owners?” Clearly, more work needs to be done. 

As I’m about to break down the Trail Ambassador table, two trail runners in their mid-30s sprint down the steep trail, then stop to refill empty water bottles while gasping for air. They explain that they’ve just completed the Bridger Ridge Run course in its entirety, having run and speed-hiked all the way from Fairy Lake. A teenager visiting from Florida asks, “Is Fairy Lake further up than Yoga Rock? We all made it up to Yoga Rock, no problem!” One of the exhausted trail runners pats the young man on the shoulder and says, “Good job, man. Good job.” Had I not been on the trail that day, I would’ve missed that.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Gallatin Valley Land Trust’s blog. For more information about the Trail Ambassador program, visit gvlt.org.