Looking at impacts to public lands and trails amid decreased services, increased use
By Katherine Nettles
People are flocking en masse to the mountains and to our public lands after being cooped up in coronavirus quarantine all spring, and amid public health orders to avoid large crowds or cramped indoor spaces, predictions are that will continue well into the fall.
Yet with tightened federal agency budgets, social distance and new personal protective equipment guidelines, there are notably fewer amenities such as restrooms, port-o-potties and garbage collection, which might create a literal mess across these treasured spaces.
Many have asked, how can land managers cope? The advice from experts is to be prepared and BYOB, as in bring your own bags—for trash and for human waste. And don’t forget to take them with you when you leave.
“We place a high value on providing opportunities for the public to hunt, fish and recreate on their National Forest System lands and waterways,” says Kim Phillips with the U.S. Forest Service.
Phillips says the Gunnison Ranger District of the USFS has received a high volume of calls asking about access and site availability, and has seen a lot of activity in the forest recently, noting, “Through the first few relatively snow-free weekends, we’re seeing a good deal of traffic in the backcountry.”
Phillips says that even as the USFS works to onboard seasonal workers and prepare for new disinfecting protocols, “Visitors should prepare for limited or no services, such as restroom facilities and garbage collection, and come prepared with all the essentials, including food, water and emergency supplies.
“We’re working as fast as we can to get things ready for an influx of visitors. The pandemic certainly has presented challenges in that effort, but our goal is to be present to support visitors the best we can while staying safe.”
The Gunnison Ranger District is also investing in signage at high-use sites to remind folks that there are public health orders in effect and to encourage low-risk behavior while recreating.
“As people engage one another at the campground or on the trail, we hope they’ll do so with a generosity of spirit and an eye towards taking care of each other,” urges Phillips.
Dave Ochs, executive director of Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (CBMBA) and Crested Butte Conservation Corps (CBCC), says all the organizations are working well together.
“We at CBMBA and the CBCC are expecting big numbers and big impacts. If the other early season recreation destinations are an example of what is happening in the COVID era, then we are going to be in for a crowded and busy backyard,” Ochs points out.
“If the Western Slope is the indicator of what’s to come, then it’s not just the recreation enthusiasts flocking to the great outdoors either,” explained Ochs. “It’s also those who the virus really caught off guard, and the homeless and jobless populations are also flocking to the free camping and nicer weather. Tent cities are popping up, lots of human waste, lots of trash, lots of illegal camping, and the tell-tale sign of when the homeless populations are hitting the backyard—the ‘trash a site for a length of time then abandon it’ thing is happening. In addition, RV, van, trailer, and camping sales are way up nationally and people seem to want to forget the ‘stay at home’ times.”
CBCC has hit the ground running as usual, collecting 420 pounds of trash to date.
“We’ve already got one toilet, a water ski, bookshelves, and lots of other random trash. The human waste has not been an issue as much yet, but the camping in the drainages is just picking up. Without the port-o-pots that the chamber [of commerce] and businesses supported in the drainages the past few years, we’re getting prepared to remedy those impacts as they happen,” says Ochs.
The CBCC crews are working with the Gunnison Ranger District on an initiative with the Gunnison County Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation (STOR) committee to create a “designated camping” amenity to replace the existing dispersed camping.
“We’ll be maintaining a human presence on the forest and in our open spaces, and looking to instill stewardship values in our visitors. Education and outreach will be key, and we’ll work with as many of our partners as we can to extend that outreach,” says Ochs.
He says there is need for citizen stewards to help with messaging and outreach, observations and reports, and continued support from partners and benefactors.
“We have a great start to the season with an amazing new collaboration in the Gunnison County Stewardship Fund. We have stalwart support from Mt. Crested Butte and the town of Crested Butte, 1% for Open Space, the Tourism and Prosperity Partnership, Met Rec, the USFS and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. In addition, so many of our previous CBCC founders and other supporters have already made donations, but we still have more of the budget to realize. And that will never end—we will always be able to hire more trail stewards and crew members if we can, and we may be hiring more as the year goes on based on those impacts. Whether you support trails or stewardship efforts, either way, even a $30 CBMBA donation goes to all that we do and every bit helps,” says Ochs.
Ochs also notes that the Gunnison Ranger District is working hard to keep the bathrooms open, has installed another new pit toilet at Musician’s Camp and is working on one in Washington Gulch.
“The BLM has done the most amazing job at the Oh Be Joyful [OBJ] campground with a complete campground overhaul. They have installed bathrooms, improved and designated sites for certain uses, created day parking and overflow tent camping, and are working with the Crested Butte Land Trust to connect OBJ with Gunsight Bridge. They have installed a bridge to get across the creek, and have decommissioned and re-vegetated damaged areas,” he noted
The Gunnison County Stewardship Fund is one last, but potentially large, component. National Forest Foundation (NFF) Gunnison County stewardship coordinator Joe Lavorini has helped county officials create a land stewardship program proposal to hire approximately 10 workers for 12 weeks this summer, with additional room for volunteers.
“Trails will be getting a lot of impact here, and we are seeing piles of interest,” Lavorini said of potential visitors. The challenges will be for federal agencies to manage that impact, and possibly some tension between locals and visitors over that impact, he added.
Lavorini and Gunnison County Community and Economic Development director Cathie Pagano presented the initial proposal to Gunnison County commissioners last week, and will be requesting the county contribute around $100,000. Employees would engage in outreach and education at trailheads, campgrounds and in parking lots. They could answer questions and provide direction regarding restrooms, and also help with some habitat restoration work.
The STOR committee has agreed to contribute $20,000 from its GOCO grant programming money as well, and the NFF has indicated that it can provide a 50 percent match to these local contributions.
“I really love the dual focus and being able to offer economic help and tackle stewardship needs we have in the valley. We would like to offer opportunities for the public as well. We would love to make that a part of this process this summer,” said Lavorini.
Ochs concludes that citizen stewardship is key among all else.
“As a community, we have many shared values that we can impart on our guests and visitors. Citizen stewardship is not always the easiest thing to do, perhaps more so when it comes to calling someone out for wrongful use, but a friendly face imparting those values we cherish goes a long way,” Ochs advised. “Some help could be in the form of reminding folks not to camp within 100 feet of water, don’t park more than 30 feet from the road for a new dispersed use, bring ‘wag bags’ or truly fulfill the ‘leave no trace’ ethics, along with common sense advice and backcountry information. We get out there, and the more of us out there helping to spread the good word, the better. And of course, we’ll take care of the dirty work if you witness the trash, the poop, the need for boots on the ground action!”