Fee structure being shaped for Crested Butte area backcountry

Get ready to pony up for designated campsites and pay to play at Lake Irwin

[ By Mark Reaman ]

Getting public feedback on eliminating free dispersed camping and charging people to camp or even just use some of the backcountry areas near Crested Butte like Lake Irwin is the immediate focus of a long-term effort to manage the Forest Service lands in the drainages located in the north end of the valley.

Led by Western MEM (Masters of Environmental Management) student Lizzy Bauer and with the endorsement of the Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation (STOR) committee, the idea is to submit the plan to the U.S Forest Service this spring, gather the appropriate public comments and possibly start charging backcountry users in May 2022.

Building on conversations she had with the Mt. Crested Butte Town Council and county commissioners in December, Bauer went over the plan with the Crested Butte Town Council on Monday, January 4, touching on previous concerns and providing some updates.

Basically, USFS officials are proposing to charge $5 per vehicle for a single-day pass and $20 per vehicle for an annual pass to access Kebler Pass in the winter and Lake Irwin in the summer. Overnight campers in the primary drainages near Crested Butte would pay $10 per night if not located close to a backcountry toilet facility and $15 per night if located within accessible walking distance to a toilet. Making a campsite reservation online would incur a $6 administrative fee on top of the daily charge.

Bauer is looking for general feedback on the idea with plans to begin the Forest Service review process this spring. A public scoping period for the proposal would take place between May 15, 2021 and September 15, 2021. Instead of being monitored by an independent concessionaire, the Forest Service would manage the plan that in turn would keep 95 percent of the money raised in the local forest. The new funds would be used to deal with toilets, trash collection, picnic tables, better signage and parking to help mitigate backcountry impacts.

“The Forest Service really wants to make sure the idea has public support before proceeding,” said Bauer. “It’s been determined that litter and human waste were causing the main ecological damages in the forest around Crested Butte so those are two priorities of mitigation measures.”
Bauer said the other goal was to keep the costs affordable. But she emphasized the money coming in will go to pay for maintenance and mitigation on the nearby Forest Service public lands. She said public land use near Crested Butte was up 300 percent last summer and there is not nearly enough money to pay for adequate maintenance. Gunnison Forest recreation staff officer Aaron Drendal calculated that the plan would raise between $100,000 and $150,000 with the possibility of pulling in $200,000 a year through camping fees being a stretch. He had not calculated an estimate for the backcountry use fee. “It’s a pretty modest amount for the services that will be provided,” he said.

While not set in stone, Bauer said STOR recommended limiting any overnight camping visit at any particular site to no more than seven consecutive nights. There is no plan to have a discounted annual camping pass or a cut rate for extended stays.

Crested Butte council member Mallika Magner asked if thought had been given to entice people of color to more easily access the backcountry and campsites. Bauer said she looked into it and that under this proposal, 98 percent of the Gunnison National Forest will continue to be free to any member of the public. “I found that with federal government fees, there is no legal way for the Forest Service to provide discounts for say, locals, or low income people or minority groups,” she said. “We tried to keep the pricing really reasonable. Only a small portion of the forest will have the fee structure.”

Council member Chris Haver made the point that the backcountry use passes had to be easy to obtain for visitors and maps of the campsites and fee areas would be helpful.

“The passes can be purchased online but that comes with an administrative fee,” Bauer explained. “Day passes will most likely be available at the Gunnison Forest office and at the trailhead. Some places partner with local businesses like outdoor stores and gas stations to sell them as well.”

Drendel said maps of the new campsites are already available online. He said four of the drainages should have the new campsites up in 2021 with the entire program completed in 2022.

“We have already had incredibly positive feedback over this designated campground idea,” Drendel told the council.

Council member Will Dujardin said while generally supportive of the change, he asked Bauer to consider a discounted camping pass for locals. “A lot of people living here like to get out to camp around here,” he said. “A seasonal camping pass would give locals the chance to get out with some sort of discount. Maybe something like $120 for 10 nights.”

Bauer said that could be reconsidered.

Council member Mona Merrill said her concern was that charging for camping or access to Lake Irwin would push the masses, and their impacts, to other places in the nearby forest where it was free.

“That is certainly a concern,” admitted Bauer. “But the entire north district of the Gunnison USFS will no longer allow any dispersed camping. People will have to use designated sites.”

Mayor Jim Schmidt asked if bikers heading to the Dyke Trail would have to pay the fee and Bauer said it applied only to vehicles so bikers and hikers were exempt.

Schmidt also asked if discussion had been held about using some of the money collected to help pay for an RV dump station since the town was currently bearing that burden and getting negative pushback from neighbors.

“That is an ongoing discussion with STOR and other entities,” responded Bauer. “There is awareness that some of that burden needs to come off of Crested Butte.”

Dujardin asked if there could be a point where a heavily used backcountry area like Lake Irwin was basically “sold out” and access would be denied or limited, given how busy some days at Irwin can be in the summer.

“We haven’t considered that aspect yet but capacity might have to be considered when it comes to parking places,” said Bauer. “There is no definitive answer to that but it could potentially happen.”

Crested Butte town manager Dara MacDonald said one concern is that the town owns part of the lakefront at Irwin and if people are told they can’t go use forest property, they may be pushed to town property. That could end up with significant impact on town land and water.

Bauer expects to submit the plan to the Forest Service in February. She promised the public would have extensive opportunity to comment on the plan this coming summer and public meetings will be conducted to gather comments. Comments can also be submitted in writing, in person at the Gunnison Forest office in Gunnison or online once the scoping process starts.

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