During the 11 years she spent as the executive director of the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, Sue Wallace’s appreciation for the region’s astoundingly beautiful landscapes only grew. Sadly, not everyone shares that same level of admiration: In recent years, spiking visitor numbers, combined with what seemed to Wallace like blatant disregard for pristine places, had damaged CB’s kaleidoscopic wildflower fields. People were picking flowers, carving up aspens, and driving trucks across high-mountain meadows. Worried the cumulative abuse threatened to kill off the scenic wilds she cherished, Wallace founded Mountain Manners in 2016. What started as a consciousness-raising effort has evolved into a trailside task force that roams CB’s most popular paths. Last year, the program recruited and trained 33 volunteer Peak Protectors who approach backcountry users and educate them about proper outdoor etiquette. As the patrol begins teaching its second summer of high-country charm school, 5280 caught up with Wallace to learn why the formalities matter.
Name: Sue Wallace
Title: Program director, Mountain Manners
5280: Haven’t people always picked wildflowers or short-cut trails? What’s changed?
Sue Wallace: People are coming to Crested Butte in volumes that we have never seen before. And they’re a different type of user—entitled, uneducated, short-term. They may come for a wedding and spend just 48 hours in Crested Butte. They don’t have an investment in this place.
How do you stop problem behaviors like littering and illegal campfires?
We try to be as friendly as possible. We hand out sunscreen and other goodies; we avoid sounding judgmental and try to break the ice. Then we suggest a better way, like taking photos instead of collecting flowers. It’s hard, psychologically, to approach someone who is doing something you don’t want them to do. But we invoke the authority of the resource—the mountain beauty that we all come to appreciate—which belongs to all of us. This is our backyard. We have the right to protect it.
How have folks been responding?
Last summer we had 790 encounters, and only one wasn’t well received. Most people were really open to it, especially kids, because almost everyone we encountered was ignorant. I don’t mean that in a rude way. They just didn’t know that what they were doing has damaging consequences. We were able to connect with people in ways that were new to them, and they accepted it.
Are you seeing tangible results from your efforts?
We hope that we’re cultivating greater outdoor awareness. But we haven’t figured out a statistical way to measure that shift. The evidence we have now is subjective. After each encounter, Peak Protectors complete an informal survey that gauges the visitors’ level of awareness and how willing they seemed to make behavioral adjustments. During our interactions, we ask people to participate in some sort of conservation effort, like picking up trash or parking properly at trailheads—and, of course, everyone says they will. It’d be wonderful if that results in less damage this summer around our most popular trails. But we’re also hoping to hear, “Oh yeah, I know about Mountain Manners.” If we start hearing that, we’ll know that our message, Your behavior really does have an impact, is getting out there.