Rangers update council on new camping restrictions

RV technology having major impacts

by Mark Reaman

Labor Day weekend drew a lot of people to the backcountry around Crested Butte and helped emphasize to the U.S. Forest Service the need to get a handle on camping in the area.

During a report to the Crested Butte Town Council on September 3, Gunnison Forest District ranger Matt McCombs said his crews counted 23 new campsites that were formed in the Washington Gulch area alone over that three-day holiday weekend. “That’s not sustainable,” he told the council.

McCombs said four USFS law enforcement rangers were brought in over Labor Day to try to control the backcountry. The activity was stunning and reinforced the need to no longer allow unfettered dispersed camping in the drainages surrounding Crested Butte. McCombs noted that RVs can now go deeper and persist longer in the backcountry and that has had major impacts on public lands.

“We want to manage the resource in a responsible way,” McCombs said. “Our goal is to implement a transition away from dispersed camping over multiple seasons and focus on education. We acknowledge there will be less opportunity to camp in this area and we understand it could push people to other places in the area. We will be trying to keep people in designated sites and accommodate everyone, from tent campers to large fifth wheels.”

USFS recreation staff officer with the Gunnison Ranger District Aaron Drendel laid out the plan for the agency to move toward designated camping sites in the major drainages around Crested Butte. He said the seasonal camping closure implemented in 2016 up the Gothic drainage had been successful in limiting camping. He showed the recent damage being done up the Slate in the “Musicians Camp” area as more and more people use it for camping.

“The brush is being denuded and there is a proliferation of new fire rings,” Drendel explained. “People are burning everything, including healthy trees they cut down. They are also making new vehicle routes in that area by cutting down trees.”

Drendel said the next step is to “send a clear message” that, from now on, camping will be allowed only in designated campsites. He said the Forest Service will develop sites that are appropriately located and in places that are used by campers already. Sites will not be made near water or near steep slopes. Each site will have a fire ring to ensure “right size” campfires. The agency will erect signage and place toilets in many areas.

“We will try to maximize the number of campsites but there is not infinite space out there,” Drendel told the council. “We have to take these steps now. There are examples of other places where camping got out of hand and it is now prohibited. I personally feel camping is a valuable use of public lands so we are trying to control the issues to preserve that opportunity to camp out on public lands.”

McCombs said in the long run, the USFS might have to start taking reservations for nearby backcountry camping, “but first we need a transition period to explain to people the reasons people are experiencing something they might not have expected.”

“There will still be camping opportunities around here,” McCombs emphasized. “We want to perpetuate that opportunity as long as we can. There will still be a dispersed camping experience but with limitations.”

Backpack camping will be unaffected and McCombs said they could partner with the county sheriffs to help remind people of the new rules. “A field presence makes a difference,” he said.

McCombs said the new camping plan restrictions are a work in progress and his office wants to receive feedback from the public. “We aren’t making any rash decisions and we are looking for as much feedback from the public as possible.”

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