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Study reveals winter trends in backcountry

Busiest day in the backcountry is Saturday; primary complaint is parking

By Aimee Eaton

The past summer saw a lot of energy dedicated to backcountry protection and conservation. From groups seeking to change behavior to those picking up garbage and rebuilding trails, people and managers were invested in summer use and creating a better understanding of what was going on beyond the pavement.

Now the seasons are shifting and the recent snow in the high country has many members of the community looking toward winter and what backcountry management might look like during the coldest season. And while there are many ways to determine “good” management, this specific conversation is beginning with science, and a program called the Data Collective Initiative (DCI).

“Last winter we worked to develop a methodology and pilot study to determine the user groups visiting backcountry areas around Crested Butte,” said Brian Lieberman, the current stewardship coordinator at the Crested Butte Land Trust and the primary consultant and developer of the pilot study, which was not affiliated with the land trust. “The non-profit group Silent Tracks received some funding from the Community Foundation of Gunnison County to conduct a visitation study to gather data on winter recreation use in the Gunnison National Forest. The idea was to use the data to inform management decisions.”

Lieberman was recruited by Silent Tracks to develop the study because his master’s project at Western State Colorado University in the Master in Environmental Management program focused on a study of summer recreation in backcountry areas in the Upper Valley.

As it turns out, however, conducting a study in the summer is very different from in the winter.

“In the winter, there’s snow,” said Lieberman, who set up a data collection site at the Slate River winter trailhead. “We were using an infrared beam to count traffic, but the snow changes how people travel through an area. In the summer we set up the counter on a single track where there’s a pinch point allowing the technology to capture individuals. In the winter, people spread out and take different paths. They may walk side-by-side. Additionally, the counter kept getting buried in the storms, and required frequent repositioning. It resulted in all of this data being very provisional.”

From the infrared technology, Lieberman found that during the course of the season, 2,057 people walked through the measurement path, and the average number of people visiting the site per day was 34, with a high of 103 visitors at the site on February 18. These numbers should be read with caution, however, said Lieberman.

“Although the data has been calibrated, this figure still includes out and back use,” he wrote in his report findings. “The counter cannot detect which direction recreationists are going. Consequently, we cannot identify if these recreationists were accessing the backcountry or returning from their trip.”

To bolster the collected data, Lieberman organized several undergraduate students at WSCU to act as field observers. The students documented on which days most people accessed the backcountry—Saturday—and what type of activity was being pursued: ski touring, snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, hiking/walking, snowmobiling, etc. They then classified the activities as motorized or non-motorized and found that 67 percent of the traffic traveling through the Slate River Winter Trailhead was non-motorized.

Again, Lieberman suggested taking these results with a grain of salt, and to expect a much more robust report after the 2017-18 winter.

“We know that it’s going to be either a different methodology or focused much more on observational data,” he said. “To do that it’s going to require a few people to be very involved. They’ll need to be out at specific points at specific times to gather data that has scientific standing.”

In addition to the infrared technology and ground observations, Lieberman, in collaboration with vested area user groups, designed and distributed a survey about backcountry use and visitation. The survey was open on Survey-Monkey from March 20, 2017 through April 9, 2017, and asked questions such as: How many days a week do you visit the backcountry?; What time of day do you visit the backcountry?; and When you travel the backcountry, in what type of recreational activities do you participate?

In total 313 people participated in the survey, the majority of whom were between the ages of 31 and 75. Respondents reported that they most often visit the backcountry via trailheads in the upper valley around Crested Butte. They said they were most often heading to the backcountry to ski tour, then to Nordic ski, and they were getting out on average between two to four times a week, totaling more than 31 times per season.

Then there was the meat of the survey: What issues detract from your experience in the backcountry, and what if any management actions could improve your experience?

Lieberman reported that 61 percent of the survey respondents said trailhead-parking congestion and traffic was the primary issue detracting from their experience, and that creating additional parking or improving the parking situation at popular trailheads would improve their experience.

The next item survey respondents identified as potentially improving the backcountry experience would be to have bags available to clean up after pets.

Lieberman’s work will be taken over by a MEM graduate student this winter, and will likely be expanded to drainages beyond the Slate. For more information about the DCI, visit silenttracks.org.

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