Community rallies to protect the backcountry from destructive use

Conservation Corps, Mountain Manners, U.S. Forest Service all working to manage people, resource

By Aimee Eaton

Pressures of dispersed camping have regularly blackened the eye of the Crested Butte backcountry. Too many people, too many cars, too much noise and too much poop have all been sources of complaint.

This year, in an attempt to make the backcountry experience more positive for visitors and to better care for the land itself, the community, including area municipalities and agencies, has rallied together to try a new approach to backcountry use. So far it seems to be working.

At the Gothic townsite, an area that has regularly seen the impact of irresponsible backcountry users, managing traffic and human waste are high priorities. Ian Billick, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory based in Gothic, said strong efforts are being made at the West Maroon Trailhead (located just north of Schofield Pass) to manage waste. The Mountain Express, through a collaborative relationship with Gunnison County and United States Forest Service, is now offering regular bus service up to Judd Falls.

“The summer has been going really well,” said Billick. “RMBL loves seeing people getting outside and connecting with the outdoors. It’s really exciting to see the community taking pride and coming together to create an infrastructure to support our visitors.”

Billick also credits the newly formed Crested Butte Conservation Corps (CBCC) as leading a charge toward a more sustainable backcountry experience.

“The Conservation Corps has been fantastic and very responsive and it is gratifying to see how the local governments have stepped in to fund the corps,” he said.

The CBCC is the brainchild of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association’s executive director Dave Ochs. It’s a program comprised of two three-person crews working six days a week to minimize impacts, protect valuable resources, and steward the land for the best experiences possible. The corps has received substantial support from the towns of Mt. Crested Butte and Crested Butte, 1% for Open Space, and several other local user groups and entities.

“People are really happy to see the crews, and they get a lot of thanks and praises out there,” said Ochs of the on-the-ground response. ”It’s been a great start, and we have a ton more work to do. We’re cutting downed trees like a couple of lumberjacks!”

The CBCC crews have been focusing on getting trails across the valley ready to open. That has meant a lot of time clearing trees and brush, fixing decking and wood bridges, getting water off trails and improving drainage. In terms of general trail maintenance, Ochs said, the popular high alpine trail 401 has seen a lot of love, as well as Green Lake closer to town. And in the wider bits of the CBCC’s role, the crew has “cleaned up the shooting range up Walrod, and pulled a full grill out of Farris, along with some dude’s toilet.

“We’re seeing a ton of people out there,” added Ochs. “The crews are keeping track of things in a log book. We’re weighing trash and cleaning places up.”

In addition to the work being done to minimize the impact brought upon by popularity, education is taking a new role in protecting local backcountry areas. Mountain Manners, a program being run under the umbrella of the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, has trained a group of volunteers called Peak Protectors to act as ambassadors of wild places. These individuals work from the field to share and teach proper trail etiquette, leave-no-trace ethics and the principles of land stewardship.

“The goal of Mountain Manners is to make environmental stewardship a cultural norm in the Gunnison Valley,” said campaign coordinator, Gillian Rossi. “We want to include everyone who plays outside in this gorgeous area, whether they are mountain biking, backpacking, rafting, ATV-ing, etc.”

Rossi said the program will be deemed successful if data shows a trend in gradual behavior change over the next few summers.

“We want to see someone who is used to leaving ‘toilet paper flowers’ along the trail to have an interaction with a Peak Protector and dig a cat hole the next time they have to take care of business.”

Beyond the proactive steps being taken in the area, the U.S. Forest Service has also stepped in to provide the teeth for enforcing better behavior on public lands.

Since June 1, the agency has been addressing issues related to unauthorized road and trail creation, concentrated user groups, human and animal waste, user conflict and poor campground fire management.

A five-year closure implemented last year in the Gothic corridor outside Crested Butte—which came partially as a result of a particularly brutal 2015 where problems of trespassing, people driving off-road, people leaving human waste unburied and obvious on public lands, and people destroying vegetation, among other issues—remains in effect.

Dispersed camping is prohibited in the restricted area seasonally from June 15 to August 15, and off-route travel also is prohibited there.

In 12 corridors, motor vehicles will be allowed to travel no more than 30 feet, or about one vehicle length, from designated routes for dispersed camping.

The corridors include:

—Washington Gulch, Forest Road 811, from the forest boundary to Elkton.

—Slate River corridor, Forest Road 734 (County Road 734), from the forest boundary to private land at Pittsburg.

—Kebler Pass corridor, Forest Road 826 (County Road 12), from the forest boundary to above Irwin Campground ending at private lands, to the top of Ohio Pass and Kebler Pass, and up the Splains Gulch Road.

—Cement Creek corridor, Forest Road 740 and 740.2C, D, E, from the forest boundary to Deadman trail head.

—Spring Creek corridor, Forest Road 744, from the forest boundary to a quarter mile beyond junction of forest roads 744 and 880.

—Taylor Canyon, Forest Road 742 (camping only in developed campgrounds from Almont to Rivers End campground).

—Taylor River corridor, from the junction with Cottonwood Pass Road (Forest Road 742) to Dorchester campground.

It is still very early in the summer, and in the implementation of the new regulations managing these issues, said Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests public affairs specialist Anne Janik.

“Right now, we are focusing on camping closures in the Tincup area,” Janik said. “Crews are installing signs, closing user-created routes through riparian areas and to dispersed camp sites near water sources and in areas closed to dispersed camping. We are also providing written information with a map to the public to delineate the closures in the Tincup area. This information will be on our website. Our sign order should be in by early July and we will be working the rest of the summer to install the signs.”

There are currently two USFS seasonal crews working on blocking various user-created routes through riparian areas and undesignated routes to dispersed camping sites around the Tincup area/Mirror Lake Road, and the agency is suggesting alternatives in the area for dispersed camping, including: Mirror Lake, Slaughterhouse Gulch to Union Park, Taylor Park and Spring Creek Reservoir.

As summer heads into the busiest time, backcountry use will increase. The expectation is that while there will always by a few spots of conflict, the community is well positioned to protect fragile areas and areas of over use.

“People like to visit Gunnison County for many of the same reasons we live here—its abundant public lands and the activities that they allow are a wellspring of rejuvenation and connection to the natural world,” said Gunnison County commissioner Jonathan Houck. “We need to partner in efforts to best manage and take care of, and most important, protect our public lands for generations to come. By helping to remind ourselves and teaching our visitors proper backcountry manners, we can move the needle on creating a stronger ‘culture of stewardship’ and leave the backcountry better than we found it.”


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