Official says camping restrictions for bike race ‘a conservative approach’ | AspenTimes.com

Official says camping restrictions for bike race ‘a conservative approach’

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – The U.S. Forest Service’s decision to ban overnight camping at the top of Independence Pass during the upcoming USA Pro Cycling Challenge was based on expectations of larger crowds, not actual data showing that bike-race fans harmed the environment last year, according to an official with the federal agency.

“People were astonishingly respectful last year,” said district ranger Scott Snelson. “But with the added numbers of people, concentrated over two days, it’s more of an issue. It’s a conservative approach, and we’ll learn more after this year.”

Last month, the Forest Service made the decision to restrict overnight tent and car camping on the sides of Highway 82 along the upper sections of the pass, roughly from mile markers 56 to 66. The top of the pass is at mile marker 61.

The decision was made with input and support from other entities, including bike-race organizers, the city of Aspen and Pitkin County governments, the Colorado Department of Transportation and local law enforcement agencies, Forest Service and city officials have said.

Though campgrounds located between the city limits at mile marker 40 and mile marker 56 – Difficult, Weller, Lincoln Gulch and Lost Man – will still be open to the public, bike-race fans consider the top-of-the-pass areas on both the Pitkin County and Lake County sides of the Continental Divide as optimal for race viewing and partying. The summit and areas just below it attracted hundreds of overnight tent and car campers last year, drawn by a last-minute decision by CDOT to allow roadside camping.

As for this year, Snelson said he is worried about the possibility of campers trampling on the tundra and other potential effects, such as human excrement. He described the ecosystem in the uppermost areas of the pass as “fragile.” More portable toilets will be located along the pass this year to encourage people not to relieve themselves in the forest.

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“If damage occurs, it’s hard to recoup the health of that ecosystem,” he said. “So that’s the side we’re leaning on. If we had perfect information and the resources last year to do site visits (and studies), we would have a tighter sense of what the impacts might be.”

A week ago, the city’s director of special events, Nancy Lesley, said the decision to restrict camping also was based on safety concerns to protect the 100-plus professional riders as well as spectators. She’s the organizer of in-town festivities for the race, which will enter and exit Aspen on two consecutive days, Aug. 22 and 23.

Lesley said Aug. 2 that the Forest Service decision on overnight roadside camping had her support and the city’s. Her comments at a joint city-county work session Tuesday voiced general encouragement for race spectators wanting to use the pass – just not overnight, along the upper reaches.

The pass, she said, “should be another great, fun place for everyone to be this year. We’re really encouraging people. There is plenty of camping up there; it’s a great place whether you pick a legal camping spot the Forest Service has outlined or if you go up at dawn and park between milepost 56 and 66. It should be a great party.”

Meanwhile, at the same meeting, Mayor Mick Ireland took issue with the Aug. 3 Aspen Times editorial that questioned the decision. The editorial suggested that the city had a conflict of interest in playing a role in that decision, but did the editorial not criticize the City Council as Ireland stated. The editorial also pointed out that local government stands to gain financially from Forest Service enforcement of roadside, top-of-the-pass, dusk-to-dawn camping restrictions.

“The stuff in the paper about how this is a conspiracy … is just blatantly unfair,” Ireland said. “Camping is still available below the 56 mile marker.” The editorial, however, did not say the city was engaged in a conspiracy.

In fact, the city might use Independence Pass as a fundraising tool to help cover its costs associated with the race. Snelson said the city will be issued a special-use permit for the day of Aug. 23, when riders will be heading back up the pass from Aspen. The city wants to take over about one-third of the parking lot at the Lost Man trailhead, across the highway from Lost Man Campground near mile marker 55.

Brent Allred, a recreation technician with the U.S. Forest Service’s Aspen-Sopris District, said the city wants to rope off a section of the parking lot to accommodate two 10-by-10 pop-up tents and three vans. A bill for $2,000 has been sent to the city.

“It won’t take up the whole lot,” he said. “There’ll still be room for spectators and whatnot. And we’ll be patrolling the area. Our intent is not to provide exclusive use up there at that spot.”

The $2,000 figure for the special-use permit was based on 5 percent of the gross revenues the city stands to gain through its VIP package, Allred said.

Last week, city spokeswoman Mitzi Rapkin said the city might or might not use the Lost Man area for fundraising purposes. If not, it might be used as an area to assist the event’s support personnel, she added.

asalvail@aspentimes.com