Backcountry partnerships: County governments help feds pay for ‘essential’ wilderness rangers to manage crowds |

Backcountry partnerships: County governments help feds pay for ‘essential’ wilderness rangers to manage crowds

Jason Auslander
For the Aspen Times Weekly
A U.S. Forest Service ranger uses her radio at the Maroon Bells amphitheater on a busy day in July 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

When the U.S. Forest Service installed a new toilet at the Upper Lost Man Trailhead on Independence Pass in July, officials had no idea how fortuitous their timing was.

Not long after, thunderstorms triggered massive mudslides in Glenwood Canyon, shutting down Interstate 70 and turning Highway 82 from Aspen up Independence Pass into a backcountry summer tourist traffic jam.

“When Independence Pass became the new I-70, (Upper Lost Man) became a parking lot,” said Mary Flynn, developed recreation manager for the Forest Service’s Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. “One day I cleaned the toilet and it was the worst toilet I ever cleaned. It was horrible. And when I finished, there were eight people waiting to use it.”

Without Flynn and the two Pitkin County forest protection officers she supervised, that toilet — also paid for by the Independence Pass Foundation and the Aspen Skiing Co. — likely would have gone uncleaned for long periods, she said.

But the officers who cleaned the bathroom daily are not just janitors.

They also buried 159 piles of human waste, lugged more than 150 pounds of trash out of the Aspen-area backcountry, cleaned up more than 150 illegal fire rings, extinguished smoldering campfires, educated campers about fire restrictions and proper food storage, cited owners of off-leash dogs, patrolled for illegal ATVs and generally tried to police the ever-growing number of newbie outdoor enthusiasts unclear about or unconcerned with traditional backcountry etiquette, according to Flynn and the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District’s 2021 Wilderness Program Report.

Hikers come out of the Conundrum Hot Springs area, which is a popular hiking destination near Aspen. It is a 8.5-mile hike from the trail ahead to the springs, which sit at 11,222 feet. (David Krause/The Aspen Times)

However, the forest protection officers are not paid by the U.S. Forest Service, though the agency hires, trains and supervises them. Instead Pitkin County pays $100,000 a year for the two positions to focus on the county’s portion of the forest because the Forest Service cannot afford it.

And it’s not just Pitkin County shelling out cash for management of lands owned by the Forest Service. Eagle, Summit and Gunnison counties all pay the salaries of Forest Service employees who patrol problem wilderness areas within their county boundaries.

“Even before COVID, we were seeing an insane amount of new (backcountry) users,” said Jeff Shroll, Eagle County manager. “And the Forest Service just doesn’t have the staff to keep up with the demand. We could either complain about it or do something about it.”

Over the past 30 years, the Forest Service’s budget has not kept pace with the demand on the lands it manages, which has led to significant staffing shortages, according to a 2021 report from Outdoor Alliance, a coalition of 10 “human powered” outdoor recreation organizations.

“In general, these staffing reductions have led to half as many staff tasked with twice as much responsibility, a backlog of work, frustrated partners and stakeholders and an inability for the agency to fully meet its mission and the expectations of the American public,” according to the report. “The Forest Service was once considered among the best federal agencies in which to work, but it is now one of the least popular agencies.

“A demoralized workforce does not lend itself to high productivity or customer satisfaction.”

Signs and rangers are in the backcountry reminding hikers and campers about the dangers of leaving out their food.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times archive

Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, acknowledged the staffing shortages and said he feels lucky to have the financial support from the counties who fund USFS positions.

“When I tell my colleagues around the country about how committed to public lands (the counties) are, they can’t believe they’re paying to do our work,” he said. “I’m unbelievably grateful.”

The White River National Forest is the most popular national forest in the nation, with more than 10 million annual visitors. It encompasses 2.3 million acres in parts of Pitkin, Eagle, Summit, Gunnison, Garfield, Rio Blanco, Mesa, Routt and Moffat counties, and features 11 ski resorts, eight Wilderness areas, 10 peaks higher than 14,000 feet and 2,500 miles of trails, according to the Forest Service.

And while the forest is a federal asset, it takes a village to manage it, Fitzwilliams said.

“Yeah it’s federal land but it all connects,” he said. “One thing I said (when I started in 2009) is, ‘We gotta look at these lands together, without jurisdictional boundaries.’ We gotta figure it out together.”

Floaters inflate their tubes to float on Stillwater in the North Star Nature Preserve.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times archive

Pitkin County first began paying for forest protection officers in 2015 when the situation at the North Star Nature Preserve east of Aspen became untenable. Specifically, the problem was parking at the put-in for a mellow float down the Roaring Fork River known as Wildwood, which is owned by the Forest Service.

The popularity of stand-up paddle boarding was exploding at the time, and the extremely limited parking at Wildwood led to a free-for-all situation that blocked fire lanes and sometimes disrupted school bus service at the nearby Wildwood School. So Pitkin County Open Space and Trails officials, in conjunction with Pitkin County commissioners, hammered out the first agreement that allowed the county to pay for a forest protection officer to help out with the situation.

Dogs are no longer allowed to ride on water crafts through the North Star Nature Preserve section of the Roaring Fork River. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

“It’s essential for this kind of area,” said Gary Tennenbaum, director of Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails Program. “(The Forest Service) just doesn’t have the funding to hire all the people we need to manage the (Wildwood) area.”

The forest protection officer partnership in Pitkin County has now grown to include two such positions for eight months out of the year, in both winter and summer. In addition, the Open Space Program, the city of Aspen and the Independence Pass Foundation have agreed to jointly fund a third officer for the upcoming summer season for $25,000.

“Scott (Fitzwilliams) has really been the catalyst for all these partnerships,” Tennenbaum said. “He said, ‘They want to help us. We’ve got to figure out a way to get them to help us.’ He has definitely been supportive.”

In Eagle County, the towns of Vail, Eagle, Minturn, Red Cliff, Gypsum and Avon all got together about three years ago and chipped in a total of $120,000 to fund six-to-eight summer seasonal “high country rangers,” said Shroll, the county manager. The rangers pick up trash, extinguish fires left a squatter camps and dispersed campsites, perform trail maintenance and try to educate the public, he said.

“There were just so many people at the trailheads and dispersed camping sites that they were getting overrun and trashy,” Shroll said. “It’s really been a successful program.”

Dillon District Ranger Adam Bianchi, left, and Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons discuss how strong partnerships between local agencies help to mitigate wildfire risk and improve response during a community meeting in November.
Summit County Sheriff's Office/Courtesy photo

Summit County funds a 4-6 person recreation crew through a 2018 voter-approved real estate valuation tax that also funds other services like early childhood learning, mental health services and a waste diversion program, said Dan Shroder, Colorado State University extension director in Summit County. The tax was first approved in 2008.

The county emphasizes fire prevention, though crews in the field also educate the public, pick up trash, build fences, dismantle fire rings, put out campfires, help police squatter camps and generally try to manage the growing number of recreationalists, he said.

“In our county, we’re calling it a crisis,” Shroder said. “We have a housing crisis. Wildfire made us focus on (squatter camps).”

The popular Lead King Loop four-wheel drive route in Gunnison County — which has significantly impacted both the town of Marble and the area’s backcountry — led officials there to fund a ranger on an ATV for the first time last summer in an effort to control the traffic, Fitzwilliams said. The county has agreed to continue the funding next summer, he said.

Kevin Warner, district ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said that while counties and communities might have had slightly different reasons for funding the Forest Service positions, they all wanted more ranger presence and were willing to pay for it.

“I think it’s a great thing,” he said. “The Forest Service doesn’t have the funding to support (the positions) and they’re able to help us out.”

Flynn — the Pitkin County area forest protection officer supervisor — said that while the forest would certainly be more trashy without the partnerships, the main difference for her is having a backcountry presence and making sure people know what they can and cannot do in the forest.

“The biggest difference I think they’re making is talking to people,” she said. “If the public doesn’t see us, they will continue to do what they want. There’s clearly a need — no question about it.”

Aspen Times Weekly

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