Mammoth's trails open to interpretation

If the Mammoth Lakes committee on trails has its way, future visitors to the town’s trail system will do less head scratching and more learning.

The committee, made up of members from a variety of federal, state, and local agencies, along with nonprofit entities, accepted a sweeping, 92-page outline of how to enhance Mammoth’s trails with a series of trail-side education pieces on Wednesday.

“This document is a great start,” said Jon Kazmierski, the recreation officer of the Inyo National Forest.

“It needs some refinement in detail but the authors did an excellent job of writing it—where we are, where the opportunities lie.”

The report is called “Interpretive Services Planning—Opportunities for Interpretation along the Mammoth Lakes Trail System.”

It is an outgrowth of a study contracted in 2011 by the Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access Foundation (MLTPA), and was prepared by two local interpretive specialists, David Scott and Christie Osborne.

Their mission was to prepare and deliver a draft report and presentation on the opportunities available to interpretive programming on the trail system.

Scott’s draft report, available for download on the MLTPA website (along with a PowerPoint presentation by Osborne), details how current technology can enhance and deliver interpretive information to the trail system.

The effort fits in nicely with current Forest Service planning, Kazmierski said.

“The Forest Service is in a major transition when it comes to interpretive programs,” he said.

Much of the interpretive education would be through signage, although other media pieces, such as information via smartphones, also would be at the ready for visitors who want to know more about what it is, exactly, that is before their eyes.

John Wentworth, the executive director of MLTPA, said both pieces are meant to guide and inform future efforts to incorporate educational materials related to local geology, arts and culture, biology, and other topics into the growing signage and wayfinding system.

The report itself is encyclopedic, but makes a clear distinction between information and interpretation.

Where information provides facts, interpretation tells a story that gives context and meaning to facts.

For example, a mere informational statement about Mammoth Rock might read something along the lines of “Mammoth Rock is made of marble, metamorphic limestone, which began as sea floor approximately 450 million years ago, was uplifted over a period of millions of years, and was eroded by glaciers into its present form during the last one million years.”

An interpretive statement, on the other hand, might read something along the lines of this:

“Mammoth Rock is a proud survivor. Born as ancient sea floor some 450 million years ago, it has endured millions of years of tectonic pressure and upheaval and even stood its ground during ice ages when glaciers scraped at and scoured it from all angles.”

According to the report, “both convey the idea that Mammoth Rock is made of old rock that has been eroded over time, but that idea is explained in different terms.

“Without going into great detail, the difference between the two is that the second contains less of the raw information that a geologist might desire, but more of the emotion and basic ideas that a non-geologist can relate to and appreciate.

“Whereas most people have trouble comprehending timescales measured in millions of years, everyone understands what it means to be born, to be a survivor of something, and to ‘stand one’s ground,’” the report states.

“While the second is less precise than the first, it is no less accurate. Admittedly, some precision has been sacrificed for comprehension. While such a sacrifice would be inappropriate in a scientific article, it is expected in interpretation.”

Whether the report will find traction or merely find space on someone’s shelf is unknown.

“My thinking,” said committee chair and Mammoth Town Manager Dave Wilbrecht, “is that you’d want to consider allocating a certain amount of funding—and I don’t know what that number would be—but you want to start embedding this in whatever it is you want to do.

“You have to have an intention and figure out how to pay for it. As projects move forward [the report] has to be embedded with those projects, whatever those projects are.”

The Forest Service already is one step behind, said Kazmierski.

“Our public information officer, Nancy Upham, has announced her retirement Jan. 4 and she has probably been the biggest champion of interpretation who is engaged in the Inyo National Forest, perhaps in its history,” he said.

“We’re getting ready to lose a tremendous person and asset to interpretation and education. We’re not exactly sure how that gap is going to be filled, if the person who fills her position takes on those responsibilities or if they are going to be distributed elsewhere.”