Carrying capacity

In our local context, “carrying capacity” basically addresses the limits of a particular place. And in the summer just about any place is seeing carrying capacity maxed—especially during the peak month of July.
Summer is different from winter, and summer is nigh. Given the numbers of recent summers, the long days are getting a tad frightening for many people.
During winter, carrying capacity is tied to tubes (metal, not glass, although that comes into play too). Think about it. In winter, visitors fly into the GUC airport in metal tubes from Dallas or Houston, Chicago and Denver. Or they drive here in their metal tubular vehicles. At the airport they are carried to the ski area by Alpine Express tubes. Most check into their designated room tubes and get to the ski runs via metal chairs. Getting to town from the mountain to shop or eat is via colorful painted Mountain Express tubes; the visitors reverse the process in the tubular world when it is time to leave. They are contained and maintained.
Summer is different. Most people coming here drive, or if they fly in, rent SUVs. Most want to explore the wildflower capital of Colorado and that means driving, hiking and biking all over the various drainages. People are more likely to drive to outdoor concerts, meals and parades. Part of the bucket list dream is to camp in a beautiful Rocky Mountain postcard. Hello Oh Be Joyful!
The summer season matrix is not the same as winter so while there may be empty hotel rooms in the summer, the impact of people in general is far greater and more widespread in the summer. Plus the second-home owners stay longer in Crested Butte when it is 100 degrees in Texas and there are more cultural options in the summer than winter to drive to. The point being, summer is getting more and more crowded and carrying capacity is reaching its limits.

We all should recall the dilemma of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and overcrowding from last summer. It was a cluster in the Gothic drainage because there were days the carrying capacity was obviously overloaded. So the Forest Service is prohibiting dispersed camping above Gothic this summer. It will likely impact other drainages negatively but it is a first step toward addressing a growing problem.

There was a common thread of carrying capacity issues at the Crested Butte Town Council meeting this past week. There was a report on the numbers of people who used the lower Slate River valley last summer. The number was big. Some 80,000 “visits” were recorded between Peanut Lake, the Lower Loop area, the Lupine trails and over to Oh Be Joyful campground.

Almost 20,000 overnight camping uses were recorded at the OBJ campground. The camp sits on BLM property and the local agency office is making moves to upgrade the site. That will come with changes (road closures) and fees ($10) because the local personnel admit it is getting out of control. Almost 100 “dispersed sites” are obvious in the area. The carrying capacity is overflowing. Tents and campers on the Fourth of July were everywhere. The experience was probably not so wonderful. We “sell” experience as our bread-and-butter, by the way. The “postcard” isn’t that colorful when someone’s dog is peeing on your tent.

Trailhead parking in the upper valley, particularly in July (and during a winter powder day) seems to have maxed out as well. The summer study indicates every day in July is crowded (at least to locals) and when it is the Fourth of July, people are literally on top of one another. Carrying capacity is maxed. That is not fun.

Speaking of the Fourth of July—the Town Council and the Chamber of Commerce talked about the 15,000 people recorded by drone along Elk Avenue during the parade last year. Everyone agreed that was about as many people as the town could handle. Carrying capacity was reached.
Incoming chamber executive director Eliza Cress told the council that no more people needed to be brought into town on the Fourth. “We aren’t promoting that event like we have in the past,” she said. “Having 15,000 people in town seems like enough.”
Mayor Glenn Michel took that view and looked into the future. “As the town gets more popular, we’ll have to have the hard conversation about more people coming into town on critical days,” he said. “What is handleable for these events?”
Interim town manager Bill Crank said it may get to the point where Crested Butte takes a Telluride festival stance. “There may have to be a time when vehicles aren’t allowed into town during certain events,” he said. “There are 17 acres of public land on the highway by Skyland that could be used as a park-and-ride lot. Town is reaching carrying capacity at certain times.”
Councilman Chris Ladoulis suggested for this Fourth, making a very visible effort to get people to park in the school parking lot when they enter town so the heart of Crested Butte isn’t congested with vehicles. “Let’s try to fill that lot up,” he said.
Obviously, the town and chamber understand there is a limit to numbers in town and we have reached it on July 4.

If the Chamber of Commerce and Town Council understand we are bumping up against “carrying capacity” at certain times of the year, it is probably real. It is something we all need to continue to address. After all, that certain time of year is not far away.
For right now, enjoy this place when carrying capacity is not so much an issue—but let’s keep looking for ways to keep the “postcard experience” good—for all of us.

—Mark Reaman

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