Backcountry madness not so mad this summer

Thanks to early messaging…public lands operating at a “functional capacity”

By Mark Reaman

“Tame and manageable.” That is how Dave Ochs of the Crested Butte Conservation Corps (CBCC) is describing this summer’s Crested Butte area backcountry situation that last year was neither tame nor manageable.

“With folks heading back to ball games, weddings, travel and other events we have indeed seen less backcountry impacts than were expected,” Ochs said this week. “That’s a great thing. It’s good to see things operating at a functional capacity. Town is crazy busy, that’s good, but the backyard is not taking the brunt of those impacts this year. There is a night and day difference. The implementation of the designated camping, and the early season messaging that went out to our visitors seems to have done quite a job in finding a capacity check.”

Gunnison National Forest officials agree with the Ochs characterization. “Visitation is down somewhat compared to last year. I would say we have had around 70 percent of the number of visitors as we did in 2020,” said Gunnison National Forest forestry tech, developed and dispersed recreation ranger Jack Mudd. “So overall, management has been less stressful than last year. We have more time to accomplish tasks and make visitor contacts.”

The CBCC employs two three-person crews plus one person focused on designated camping sites and the CBCC supervisor. The crews have been out and about since May 18 helping to install the designated campgrounds, hauling out trash (and unfortunately poop) left by backcountry users and engaging with the public coming to visit the area in and around Crested Butte.

In a recent informal report to some county, Forest Service and STOR (Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation) officials, Ochs said the tenor of this year is probably due in large part to the early messaging put out to visitors.

“What was pure madness last year, is tame and manageable this year,” he wrote. “The designated camping implementation and the messaging that went out about having a Plan B since visitors might not find a camping spot right away so they should plan for alternative options… WORKED! 

“I think it was the messaging and the outreach because it was pretty crazy in 2019 too,” confirmed Ochs. “So we can’t just blame COVID (2020), as that was a catalyst for even more concerning numbers. What we are seeing this year is so very manageable, where it was not in 2019 – not just the COVID year. The course of actions from so many — from the USFS, and the STOR Corps, to our (CBCC) crews worked. It’s awesome.”

Of course it’s not always perfect and people are on vacation after all but the tsunami doesn’t appear to be crashing regularly. There are nine backcountry toilets in the various local drainages with more planned for the future. Ochs said the new designated camping program has been well received, well used and for the most part, well adhered to. Even without the official order in place in some drainages, Ochs said people seem to understand and camp in designated spots.

“There’s been some regular shenanigans and some flagrant disregard, but nothing has stood out. Even on the Fourth of July, a backcountry camp spot could be found. There are of course some folks still parking in, let’s say, ‘unique’ places, with obvious disregard for limiting resource damage; some vehicles attempted Paradise Divide WAY too early, getting stuck, then making an alternative route in highly sensitive habitat; there are some e-bike issues out there; and some of the regular human waste and trash. The impacts are here, but not as bad as the last two years,” Ochs said.

“The designated programs are working,” agreed Mudd. “The overwhelming majority of people are camping in designated sites; the overall ecological impact from camping is smaller than last year. Having said that, it has been busier the last couple of weeks and a few people who cannot find designated sites are camping in non-designated sites. However, even those camping in non-designated sites have mostly followed the existing camping regulations. The biggest issue on busy weekends is people arriving Saturday morning/afternoon and not being able to find a designated site.”

With the uniform support of several organizations, Ochs said there are enough boots on the ground this year to help manage the backcountry. “We’ve seen amazing support and that’s why we got more crews and boots out there,” he said. “It’s why we’re ahead of the ‘designated camping’ implementation. We wanted to get as much done by July as possible so that the messaging and the infrastructure was as uniform as possible throughout the various drainages that are often referred to as the ‘kingdoms.’”

Mudd gives kudos to the CBCC for the work being done. “CBCC has done a great job implementing the program and working with the USFS. They have accomplished a great deal with what people they have.”

He also admits that some local issues overlap and local workers without housing impacts the backcountry. “There are some people still ‘living’ in the forest, i.e. trying to camp in one spot all summer. That will be an issue as long as housing in the CB/Gunnison area is ridiculously expensive.”

Overall, Mudd feels the new plan is a success. “The designated dispersed plan seems to be working and is definitely reducing the ecological impact of camping in the area,” he said. “It has also made management less complex for the USFS since the regulations are clear. A plan for what to do when designated sites are full is needed to avoid both ecological damage and visitor frustration over lack of camping availability.”

Ochs echoed the sentiment. “It’s just good to see things working,” concluded Ochs. “Things planned coming to fruition, all of us working together, and the effective messaging that we worked on all Spring, actually working!”

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