Common Outdoor Ground, a new volunteer group focused on public lands in southeast Wyoming, logged more than 800 hours of volunteer work during its first year of existence.
That work was spread out over 10 projects and involved about 300 people. Their work was estimated to have a value of more than $20,000.
“It exceeded my expectations, by far,” said Aaron Voos, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service and a member of the Common Outdoor Ground steering committee, also known as COG.
Voos and a group of volunteers have been working for several years to create an organization that could work with local land managers to complete much-needed projects.
They got going in early 2018 and went to work last summer. Their goals include supporting access and multiple uses on public lands, expanding recreation opportunities, assisting land managers and training volunteers.
COG has a formal volunteer agreement with the Forest Service and informal agreements with Laramie BikeNet, Albany County and the University of Wyoming Outdoor Program and Office of Service, Leadership and Community Engagement.
During a meeting last week, volunteers and land managers met to discuss the first year and plan events for 2019.
In early May, COG gathered 30 volunteers to work with the Forest Service to create designated dispersed campgrounds along Vedauwoo Road, build fences, dismantle fire rings and clean the area.
“We got a lot of work done that day that the agency wouldn’t be able to do otherwise,” Voos said.
Later in the summer, the group helped build trails on the Schoolyard system, which sits on state land just east of town. About 70 volunteers arrived to swing shovels.
“We were floored by the number of people who showed up,” said Willow Belden, another member of the steering committee.
The group organized an evening of clean-up on Pole Mountain, during which volunteers filled a Dumpster with 2,500 pounds of detritus, including appliance and furniture dredged from the woods.
“This is an event I’d like to see repeated,” said Travis Owens, recreation technician for the Forest Service.
COG also helped decommission a portion of the Headquarters Trail on Pole Mountain, after the completion of a trail project to reroute a stretch that was vulnerable to erosion. In September, the group worked with about 80 volunteers, in coordination with UW and others, to do more trails work.
At the suggestion of a member of Albany County Search and Rescue, several COG volunteers hiked to the summit of Medicine Bow Peak in August to replace a sign that directs hikers down from the summit at a critical trail junction.
“Every year, they’d get calls from somebody who wanders off the wrong side,” Belden said. “It’s really easy to miss that turn.”
Belden said she was amazed to see how excited Laramie residents were at the prospect of volunteering on COG’s projects.
“People were so jazzed to get out and clean up trash and scratch around in the dirt,” she said.
COG members were also surprised at how many families with children showed up to help throughout the summer.
“All of our events had kids at them,” Belden said.
Rich Vincent, who volunteered with COG, said he enjoyed being able to do something productive on behalf of local public lands, which see a lot of use but not always a lot of love.
“What I found out was how satisfying it was to get things done,” he said.
Laramie District Ranger Frank Romero said that in the past he’s had to turn away people wanting to volunteer because the Forest Service didn’t have any mechanism in place to allow them to work. A group like Common Outdoor Ground, with trained trail-builders among its ranks and growing expertise, can bridge that gap.
“We now have COG as a partner. To me, that’s a huge success,” he said.
In an era of declining funding for federal agencies, which are struggling to keep up with maintenance backlogs, the presence of COG is a big deal.
“People want to volunteer, and now we have an avenue,” Romero said.
Voos said the projects COG completed in its first year were “low-hanging fruit” that met obvious needs.
“It wasn’t hard to get people behind them,” he said.
He envisions COG growing in 2019 and beyond, eventually gaining the capacity to complete more ambitious projects such as habitat rehabilitation.
Owens said COG has allowed him to expand his thinking about what’s doable on the national forest.
“There are projects we can take on that we never could have taken on before,” he said.
Emily Parsons, another member of the steering group, described COG as a group that is bringing the community together.
“There’s something meaningful about the connection you make when you work with someone,” she said. “People are longing for that.”
COG is hoping to continue gathering partners and supporters in the coming year, and it’s looking for in-kind contributions and resources such as tools and equipment. The group is also open to suggestions for projects.
Voos said the success of COG in its first year was a reflection of the character of Laramie and Albany County.
“It shows the community around here is engaged in public lands, they want them to remain accessible and in good shape and sustainable, and they’re willing to put forth some effort to work toward that,” he said.