Focus on the backcountry and replacing toilets, fire implementation plan to come
[ By Katherine Nettles ]
Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forests district ranger Matt McCombs presented several updates to county commissioners last month regarding major federal funding windfalls, the Forest Revision process and how to manage ongoing wildfire dangers.
Great American Outdoors Act projects
McCombs began by addressing the funding windfall that happened this fall when the federal government named the Forest Service a recipient of the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) funding beginning in 2021 to help tackle more than $5 billion in deferred maintenance projects. The Rocky Mountain Region (Region 2) received the second largest allotment (after the Tonga Forest in Alaska), and several projects within the GMUG made the list.
“There are very few instances in a Forest Service career when the government decides to award up to $285 million to your agency for maintenance projects,” said McCombs. That number accounts for what will be awarded to the entire agency across the U.S. each year for up to five years. And several million is expected to come directly to Colorado, where 54 projects have been approved, and 17 of them are located within the GMUG.
The investment is for non-motorized trail maintenance. “So those trails in the backcountry that don’t get the same amount of love as those trails in the front country—we’re talking wilderness trails, some of those equestrian trails where we just don’t prioritize based on use, and yet there is still absolutely a need of regular routine maintenance to make sure they are functioning,” he said.
McCombs said the GMUG plans to replace every single toilet in the Gunnison National Forest, which total more than 40, and many of which were installed in the 60s, 70s and 80s. About 16 have been funded already.
“And if you’ve ever utilized one of our backcountry, ‘60s era wooden toilets, you know what a beautiful thing it is when one of those brand new, pre-fab facilities is installed and adequately maintained… I firmly believe that we will have upgraded every one of these by the time it’s all said and done,” he said.
The GAOA funding is expected to come annually over a period of up to five years and totaling up to $750,000 in all. Since the legislative bill is only a few months old, the exact details are not yet solidified, but it appears that $150,000 for each of the next two fiscal years is arranged. McCombs said the GMUG will collaboratively manage those funds with local conservation agencies. “I look at the Crested Butte Conservation Corps as a viable option, the STOR Corps [Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation] if that persists and Western Colorado Conservation Corps out of [Grand] Junction,” he said.
Another set of projects awarded to the GMUG for this year through GAOA funding is campground redevelopments, which will cost an estimated total of $2 million. That is for Lake Irwin campground reconstruction and for Deer Lakes Campground reconstruction in Hindsdale County.
The GMUG will be initiating a contract for design work to reimagine what the Lake Irwin campgrounds can look like going forward with day and camping user fees. McCombs reported a 346 percent user increase there last year.
“We want to avoid these deferred maintenance issues we have seen over time,” said McCombs, noting that other Colorado counties are beginning to hire permanent positions for rangers at popular campgrounds.
The GMUG received an additional award of $750,000 to upgrade and redevelop trailhead information kiosks across the forest, and the Gunnison district will be the benefactor of probably 30 to 40 percent of those funds, said McCombs. “And again, we will be focusing on those backcountry wilderness entry points and some of those underutilized trailheads that have not seen a lot of love on the infrastructure side in a long, long time. It’s really exciting to see that kind of investment because it inspires the user and good behavior when the facilities are well maintained, and I think it inspires national pride in the unique resources that we’ve set aside for the benefit of the many,” he said.
Some other project highlights include replacing dilapidated fencing, especially near campgrounds where agricultural use overlaps; and reconstructing some major road systems like Ohio Creek and the Alpine Tunnel Road. “There are really projects all across the forest,” said McCombs.
Commissioner Roland Mason brought up the issue of overcrowding in Crested Butte at the RV dump. He asked that the GMUG keep that issue in mind as funds come available for new projects. McCombs said that there is a dump station in Taylor Park that could use replacing. He said he would continue being a part of that conversation, and if federal lands could be used for a new location he would support it.
McCombs said he has some big ideas around Taylor Canyon that he wants to bring to the STOR Committee. “There’s a lot of water-based recreation infrastructure that needs some love. There are campgrounds and trailer facilities in Taylor Park that could stand some investment. And certainly there are other places across the district, so I want to hear from the community and the board on where you’d like to see those investments in the long run. And we’ll facilitate structured ways to do so, using STOR as the main avenue for those discussions,” said McCombs.
“It’s remarkable, the changes we are going to see and the opportunities that this is going to bring,” he concluded.
The full list of projects in the GAOA can be viewed at www.fs.usda.gov/managing-land/gaoa
Fire season reflections
McCombs said he was ready to take action locally based on the historic wildfire activity across the west this past summer. He personally witnessed the Pine Gulch fire for about 18 days and then the Lionshead fire in Oregon for another 18 days before he returned home and saw the “remarkable demonstration of wildland fire’s ability to move” in the East Troublesome fire in Grand County.
“I experienced fire behavior and fire growth in scales that were unfamiliar to me in my career, but really unfamiliar to many in careers across the country,” said McCombs. He said the inability to use traditional firefighting approaches and tactics to suppress those fires was alarming.
“These conditions that we see in those basins and lodge pole forests are not terribly different from the conditions we have in our own backyard. I’m very interested in having a larger conversation than just today on where we are and where we want to go as relates to preparedness,” he said.
McCombs said he wants to revise the community wildfire protection plan (now over 10 years old) and possibly be one of the first communities in the state to implement it. He said the time is ripe based on both interest and finances among many stakeholders to gather data and work on implementation. He said his mantra is essentially, “Why not us, why not here, why not now?”
Houck agreed that climate change, drought, forest health and fires are all long-term issues that can affect water quality among other quality of life aspects.
“It seems like now is the time when there’s synergy to address these issues.”
“I feel like a community like ours that does so well at collaborating… I appreciate the way you put it: why not us, why not now,” agreed commissioner Liz Smith.
Mason added that outreach would be important so that people have the same kind of information being made available to the commissioners and other land management and emergency response officials. “I think that will be very important to get buy-in from the community,” he said. “I still feel I’m kind of new at this game, that implementation and the conversation around it is still very new for me; and I’ve been around it for almost 10 years now.”
“That’s an extremely valid point,” said McCombs.
Forest Plan revision
McCombs also reported that the Forest Service’s Forest Plan Revision process has been delayed like so many other things this year due to COVID, but the agency is crafting a draft plan. It will be finished and ready for public input in summer 2021 at the earliest, he predicted.
“2020 was a lost year in many ways,” he said.
As for visitation increases, McCombs said, “We don’t expect that increased interest to continue every year… but we do think a lot of new people have discovered the Gunnison Valley and they will be returning.”
County manager Matthew Birnie asked if we will end up losing campsite inventory with the GMUG’s ongoing changes to designated camping from what was previously dispersed camping in the drainages throughout the north valley.
“There will be a net loss, for sure. Because there were a lot of sites that were just unsustainable,” responded McCombs. He said areas like Irwin have some potential for increasing inventory by concentrating use.
“Growing capacity, especially in those already establishes recreation sites, is where we can make some of that up,” said McCombs.
Smith wondered what will happen with people who are looking for somewhere to camp and get into a situation where “there’s nothing to be found.”
McCombs said there is a focus on outreach to communities to inform visitors about what is available here. Equity and inclusion, he said, would be important.