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Who's Protecting the Desolation Wilderness?

Our team, at Mountain Standard, has a certain affinity for the fun hogs, the dirt bags, and the weekend warriors of Colorado and the Mountain Standard region.

We love the adventure our backyard provides, and respect the hell out of the preservation projects and cooperative efforts that keep our outdoor spaces pristine. But once you’ve met Mitch Warnick, it’s tough to find a human who’s done more to embrace, capture, and enhance life in the Mountain Standard region. So, with no further ado...


Mitch Warnick, MEM


MS: You earned your Masters in Environmental Management from Colorado’s WSCU this year. What local projects did you engineer through the program?

MW: While I was in the program, I focused on Wilderness -- specifically the Fossil Ridge Wilderness.  Instead of a research-based thesis paper, our program required an application-based Masters Project. This essentially meant we needed to find an organization or group with a need that aligned with our interests, design a tangible project around that need, and execute it.  

Early in the program I got looped in with the local U.S. Forest Service Ranger District and an incredible non-profit called Society for Wilderness Stewardship (SWS) and became a Wilderness Fellow working on the Wilderness Character Monitoring program.  My job, without getting too nitty gritty on the details, was essentially to compile years of existing data from Fossil Ridge Wilderness -- stream quality, fish stocking records, campsite inventories, and other things like that -- and assess trends over time.  The trends are used to determine the status of the Fossil Ridge Wilderness’ ‘Character’ based on aspects of the Wilderness Act of 1964.  This is an insanely brief description of what this entailed--you have no idea!  I hope you can get the gist of it, though...


Early this summer you left Colorado to head west to Lake Tahoe where you’re helping manage California’s Desolation Wilderness. Tell us about the experience so far.

The most evident change from Gunnison to South Lake Tahoe is the number of people!  Holy cow.  The Gunnison Valley is a world-class year-round recreation destination, but the numbers just don’t stack up to the population of 40 million living in California.  I am still adjusting to that, for sure.  This is also the most pressing issue for the Desolation Wilderness--essentially being loved to death.  Desolation is one of the, if not the, most highly used Wilderness area per acre in the country.

The Desolation is stunningly beautiful--sweeping granite slopes and well over 100 alpine lakes!  It’s proximity to Lake Tahoe, Reno, Sacramento, and the Bay Area, as well as the PCT bisecting it, make it a prime destination for weekend-warrior style backcountry excursions, rugged thru-hikers, and family day hikers.

How is that issue being resolved?

High use isn’t a new issue here.  A mandatory permit system was implemented in the early 1970s for the Desolation.  While this is common practice for California Wilderness areas now, the early 1970s is when permit systems were first implemented for the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and backcountry permits for Mt. Whitney -- both extremely high profile.  

This isn’t exactly ‘resolving’ the issue -- it is definitely helping to reduce truly excessive, unregulated use.  Nowadays, the overnight permits cost a small fee, which goes directly toward Wilderness Ranger salaries to provide the best possible stewardship of the Wilderness.  Anyone familiar with the Wilderness world is familiar with the dichotomy of ‘unconfined recreation’ and the freedoms enjoyed from it and the necessity of a permit system to ensure a degree of solitude is reached--both of which are required by the language of the Wilderness Act of 1964.  

Again, this is a very, very brief outline--I could go on and on about this and I encourage any one of you to reach out to me if you want to hear more!  Wilderness is my world and I love discussing and debating its philosophies.

Part of what I am doing here is to help design and implement a solitude monitoring plan for next summer as well as a campsite monitoring plan to implement potentially as early as the end of this season -- although it has been a crazy season with the insane amount of snow left from the winter, so we’ll see!


You’re known to never leave home without your camera. What inspired you to first pursue photography?

I was given my first camera back in 2003 and I loved it -- the concept of capturing images was incredible to me.  After that, in 2005, I traveled to Israel with my parents’ point and shoot and captured images I still enjoy today.  One of the folks I was travelling with was very enthusiastic about photography and we were able to ‘talk shop’ a lot, which further nurtured my love for the craft.  

In the following years, I purchased a camera while also utilizing my parents’ old 35mm film SLR.  As my love for the craft grew, my realization of the power of photography grew with it -- the rich history of National Geographic’s use of photography; the power and influence the images of visionaries like Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, William Henry Jackson and Finley & Bohlman had on environmental protection; and just the sheer beauty that Mother Nature presents and does not need to be fictionalized via paintings and other art forms (not to detract from the quality of those arts in any way!).  One thing led to another and I have now been passionately shooting as often as possible for well over a decade!


How have you been pairing your passion for photography with your career in Environmental Management?

Photography has resulted in the love and protection of many stunning landscapes and ecosystems.  William Henry Jackson’s stunning photography from his time with the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871 led to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park the following year--famously the first National Park in the world.  

Finley & Bohlman’s groundbreaking wildlife photography in Oregon led to the establishment of the Model Bird Law and convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to establish three wildlife refuges in Oregon to protect migratory birds and their habitat.  

I believe that the power of photographic imagery can bolster contemporary efforts for continued protection of our wildlands.  Connecting people to landscapes, whether those people regularly seek outdoor experiences or may never step foot in the wild, is crucial to the efforts to protect the land.  These contentious conservation and preservation battles, like the most recent and publicized Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act executive order, require the public to connect with and love the lands -- powerful photography is one of the best ways (and certainly most far-reaching) to achieve this.  


| Mokelumne Wilderness, CA |



 | Mokelumne Wilderness, CA |



| Mokelumne Wilderness, CA |



| Desolation Wilderness, CA |



Desolation Wilderness, CA | 



| Crested Butte, CO |



| Crested Butte, CO | 



| Carson Pass, CA |



| Alabama Hills, CA |



| Alabama Hills, CA |

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Words & Photos: Mitch Warnick