Changing leaves, closing campgrounds | AspenTimes.com

Changing leaves, closing campgrounds

Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times

PITKIN COUNTY ” Outdoor enthusiasts can count on early September to deliver a number of things: the first hint of yellow in aspen leaves; crisp, clear weather with cobalt blue skies; and the closure of some U.S. Forest Service campgrounds.

Three campgrounds east of Aspen will close for the season Tuesday, Sept. 3 despite their prominent perches in the middle of vast aspen forests. The Lost Man, Weller and Lincoln Gulch campgrounds will close even though they provide ringside seats to the changing colors.

The Forest Service says the closures are simply a product of supply and demand. There isn’t enough demand for all campgrounds in the Aspen-Sopris District as summer fades, so the Forest Service allows the concessionaire to close some, said Mike Kenealy, who oversees the camping operation for the White River National Forest supervisor’s office.

The camping demand dips once school starts and the night chill sets in, Kenealy said.

“The use drops hugely,” he said. “People like their down comforters.”

A private company called Thousand Trails Management Services Inc. has a permit to operate most campgrounds throughout the 2.3 million White River National Forest. It’s in the eighth year of managing about 15 campgrounds in the Aspen-Sopris District.

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Weller, Lincoln Gulch and Lost Man are small campgrounds with limited potential to make money for Thousand Trails. They combine for only 26 spaces.

Thousand Trails provides the personnel to clean the toilets, patrol the campgrounds and maintain facilities throughout the summer. The fewer campgrounds it has to operate when occupancy drops, the better for its bottom line.

The campground closures hint at the Forest Service’s emphasis these days on operating more like a business. The agency’s big push in the last few years has been to be more economical. National forests throughout the West are taking an inventory of all recreation facilities and deciding which ones will be maintained and which will be closed.

White River National Forest officials have been guarded about the process and potential outcome.

When it comes to seasonal closures of campgrounds, Kenealy insisted it isn’t the profit motive for Thousand Trails that drives the decision. The Forest Service historically closed Weller, Lincoln Gulch and Lost Man early in September when it operated the campgrounds itself. Two or three campers every day or two doesn’t justify the expense of keeping campgrounds open, he said.

Critics of the Forest Service’s business strategy complain that access to national forests should be the agency’s paramount management concern, not economics.

In the Maroon Creek drainage southwest of Aspen, access is the emphasis. The Silver Queen, Silver Bell and Silver Bar campgrounds remain open into October ” even though they are as small as the Independence Pass campgrounds and located at similar elevations.

The “silver” campgrounds are managed by the Forest Service rather than Thousand Trails. The agency is willing to absorb fall’s lower occupancies there.

Kenealy said there have been no signs over the years that the public is concerned about the early closures of Weller, Lincoln Gulch and Lost Man. Campers “haven’t been knocking on the door” asking why they aren’t open, he said.

To the credit of the Forest Service and Thousand Trails, campers won’t be completely out of luck come Tuesday. The vast majority of campgrounds will remain open deeper into the fall.

Difficult Campground, one of the largest in the area, is open until Sept. 23. It is located about 5 miles east of Aspen. Bogan Flats in the Crystal Valley closes Sept. 30.

At least one campground in the Ruedi Reservoir complex closest to the dam will remain open until Nov. 11, Kenealy said. Details have to be worked out based on demand.

The Dearhammer, Elk Wallow and Chapman campgrounds in the Fryingpan Valley will remain open until Nov. 11. Ditto for the Redstone and Avalanche campgrounds in the Crystal Valley.

Difficult and Chapman are so large that they will be partially closed before the full season closure.

Kenealy said occupancy swells in the campgrounds remaining open during big game hunting season. That justifies keeping them open. A condition in the permit of Thousand Trails requires the concessionaire to keep some campgrounds open for hunting season.

“It’s not like sites aren’t open to the public,” Kenealy said.