Public lands in peril
As use soars, pressures mount on managing national forests, BLM lands
When the chairlifts shut down in spring, Snowmass Village resident Jim Paussa shifts into desert mode. He makes a multi-week circuit visiting public lands in western Colorado, Moab, territory outside of Las Vegas and often a swing through Arizona.
After visiting the areas for decades, Paussa said the experience has changed drastically in recent years.
“I would say increasingly you’re seeing an end to solitude,” he said.
It’s not only that there are more people, there is a loss of desert ethic and lack of respect for others, he said. Disruptive partying has made its way everywhere as time-honored “Leave No Trace” principles get discarded along with beer cans in the ditch.
“You see a lot of people creating new camps and leaving trash everywhere,” Paussa said. “If you want peace and quiet you have to choose time of year, days of the week, and travel farther into the backcountry away from popular destinations. Twenty, 30 years ago we were happy to see other campers but these days those campers are often a late-night party.
“It’s not all bad news,” he continued. “Sometimes we have several nights without noisy neighbors, even outside somewhere as popular as Moab, and we are thankful. But those are weekdays. We don’t camp on weekends anymore. We hit a hotel.”
Bob Wade, who started Ute Mountaineer, Aspen’s pre-eminent outdoor retailer, 44 years ago, has witnessed the same trends in the Colorado mountains. He has been tackling portions of the 486-mile Colorado Trail one piece at a time and finished this spring. He has witnessed an increase in “micro-trash” on the iconic trail and more instances of people inappropriately handling their waste.
A lot of the problem is newcomers who don’t know proper practices, he said. Wade figures that stores such as his have some level of responsibility to try to educate their customers.
“What we need to do is turn them into good citizens,” he said. “I don’t know if we can change behavior but we’re going to try.”
A VOLUME ISSUE
These troubling trends had already developed when the pandemic rolled in and created a tsunami of new challenges for national forests and Bureau of Land Management holdings in 2020.
Many of the new visitors were urban dwellers with little experience in the backcountry or even in developed campgrounds. Problems such as disposal of human waste and wandering off designated routes were exacerbated. Then, there was simply a volume issue. As more people crowded into the spectacular high desert landscape around Grand Junction and Fruita, they tended to build new camps in places that possibly weren’t appropriate, said Greg Wolfgang, field manager for the BLM’s Grand Junction office. The lands he and his staff oversee experienced at least a 20 percent increase in visitation during the pandemic.
1.Plan ahead and prepare
2.Travel and camp on durable surfaces
3.Dispose of waste properly
4.Leave what you find
5.Minimize campfire impacts
7.Be considerable of other visitor
For more information, visit http://www.lnt.org.
“It’s definitely gotten to a point where we’re a national destination,” Wolfgang said.
A camper in the future is going to have to be as adept booking a reservation for a site online as lighting a fire in damp conditions. At the popular North Fruita Desert mountain biking area, also known as 18 Road, the BLM plans to start utilizing the recreation.gov website to require reservations for campsites before the end of this year.
Rabbit Valley, located on the Interstate 70 corridor near the Utah border, was once a surefire destination for those seeking solitude. It was an overlooked and unloved area compared to Moab and even North Fruita. No longer. As Fruita’s reputation and allure have grown, the camping pressure spread to Rabbit Valley, which has also become popular in its own right for its trail system. The BLM responded over the last decade with expanded campgrounds and designated dispersed sites outside of campgrounds. Now, the demand is so high that those sites will also go to a reservation system as soon as next year.
“That’s the direction we’re going,” Wolfgang said.
He said the Grand Junction field office’s biggest challenge is meeting the diverse demands of user groups. Some mountain bikers want smooth flow trails, others prefer technical rock gardens. Dirt bikers have their own various preferences. The popularity of off-highway vehicles known as side-by-sides has exploded in recent years and brought a whole new type of visitor to the deserts. The office relies heavily on partnerships with user groups to create new trails and close down “bandit routes.”
“The user groups understand we do best when we work together,” Wolfgang said.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams knows all about trying to meet soaring demands.
“Our visitation is somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 million to 15 million people per year,” he said. “That’s more than Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite combined.”
Throw out the millions of visits racked up at the 11 ski areas in the forest and it still numbers in the millions, with surges concentrated in summertime. Mountain bikers, off-highway vehicle enthusiasts, climbers, paddle boarders, equestrians, backpackers and hikers flock to the sprawling 2.3-million acre forest. With the population of Colorado steadily climbing, it’s a safe bet the numbers will continue to grow.
“It’s not going away any time soon,” Fitzwilliams said.
Like the BLM, the Forest Service is taking steps to address pressures in the White River National Forest. A permit system was instituted three years ago for camping in Conundrum Valley, home of the immensely popular Conundrum Hot Springs. A similar system is being prepared for the equally popular Four Pass Loop in the heart of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Reservations for a shuttle are required to visit Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon and Maroon Bells Scenic Area southwest of Aspen.
“I feel optimistic about how we’re looking at these areas now,” Fitzwilliams said. “There’s a lot of capacity if you have the right facilities, planning, signage and management strategies. There’s a lot more capacity than you think, but we’ve been behind the eight ball. The use got ahead of the all those tools and strategies in some cases.”
Just like in the desert, the mountains have suffered from hordes of new visitors who were not savvy about backcountry ethics. Wilderness rangers spend considerable time on latrine duty in recent years at pristine places such as Snowmass Lake. People don’t bury their waste properly or at all, forcing the rangers to do their dirty work.
Problems mounted with increased visits in the pandemic summer of 2020.
“I saw that a ton last year,” Fitzwilliams said of various transgressions. “It was through ignorance, and I don’t mean people are dumb. I mean they were ignorant of the rules. A lot of new users to the forest last year.”
He believes education can go a long way. But that means reaching people in the planning stage and getting more rangers out there mingling with visitors.
“We can solve so many problems with boots on the ground,” he said. “That’s one of the best investments we can make — more rangers in the field.
“Unfortunately, the trend for the last 20 years has been less and less.”
FUNDING THE FOREST
The White River National Forest’s budget has shrunk annually over the last decade or so. The recreation program budget is about $2 million to cover the needs from Independence Pass to the Flat Tops north of Glenwood Springs and from Rifle to Summit County.
Fitzwilliams is blunt about how the forest would really be hurting if not for financial contributions from Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties. They have combined in recent years to provide $450,000 annually for the White River to hire employees for specific endeavors. Summit County is keen on contributing for dispersed camping patrols and fire mitigation. Eagle County prefers workers on the trails that have taken a beating in recent years. Pitkin County’s contribution helps with enforcement at North Star Nature Preserve.
Gunnison County contributed $10,000 this year to help fund a ranger for patrols on the Lead King Loop, a rough road system popular with Jeeps and all-terrain vehicles.
“We are very lucky. These are communities that can afford this. A lot of communities can’t,” Fitzwilliams said. “But with the amount of use we have here, we all have to work together on this. It’s not just a Forest Service problem.”
That’s where Congress comes in. There is no shortage of proposals in Congress to designate more lands as wilderness. Colorado U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper along with U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse — all Democrats — introduced the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act this year. It would protect an additional 400,000 acres of public lands in Colorado, including lands in Thompson Divide southwest of Carbondale.
But members of Colorado’s Congressional delegation also acknowledge the peril that bigger crowds are creating on existing public lands and say funds must be generated to help federal agencies maintain the lands they are already managing.
“We have seen over the decade that I have been in Congress, it’s been almost nothing but bad news as far as funding,” Bennet said in a phone interview. “All the federal land agencies are strapped in terms of their budget because they are taking care of a landscape that isn’t getting any less complicated.”
Climate change is making management of public lands more difficult, he said, and increases in use add to the complications.
“On top of that, the effects of COVID, which I think has created (substantial) change in our forests and our BLM lands because there are all sorts of people who had actually never been in the backcountry before who are now using it,” he continued. “Overall I would have to say the condition of our national forests has become a source of deep, deep concern throughout the Rocky Mountain West because of the toxic combination of climate change and dry conditions and lack of investment.”
Bennet was among the senators to introduce the Ski Hill Resources for Economic Development (SHRED) Act on June 8. Among other things, it would boost funding for the recreation programs in some national forests (see related story).
To assist other national forests as well as BLM lands that wouldn’t be covered by the SHRED Act, Bennet introduced the Outdoor Recreation Partnership Act.
Neguse said he has “learned a great deal” about the needs on public lands in his role as chair of the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
“It’s important for our committee to work aggressively to try to ensure these local communities and these national forests and national parks have the resources that they need to be able to maintain and protect and conserve these beautiful, wild places for generations to come,” Neguse said. “That really is the motivating force behind a number of bills that we’ve introduced, including of course the SHRED Act that was introduced (in early June) with Sen. Bennet as well as our 21st Century Conservation Corps proposal.”
The “Triple C” would address funding on BLM lands, he noted.
In the White River National Forest, federal and local officials are optimistic about the proposed legislation but they aren’t waiting for the cavalry to try to offset existing problems from increased use. The Forest Service and Independence Pass Foundation reluctantly agreed to install a toilet at the Upper Lost Man Trailhead this summer because of ongoing issues with human waste in the wild lands just off Highway 82.
Wade is a member of Independence Pass Foundation’s board of directors.
“We don’t like putting up signs or development on Independence Pass but we felt it was needed,” he said.
Fitzwilliams said additional “tough choices” will be necessary in coming years on management of the high-use areas of the spectacular White River National Forest.
“We have a legal obligation to protect the wilderness characteristics and when we’re not and we see them being degraded — whether it’s through too many encounters (with other people), loss of solitude, resource damage, whatever it is — we have a responsibility to use the tools in our toolbox to address that,” Fitzwilliams said. “That could be education, that could be more enforcement, it could be permits, it could be fee systems.”
While the exact response is unknown, the situation creates one bit of certainty for the forest supervisor.
“We all have to realize the old days aren’t coming back,” Fitzwilliams said.
The Ski Hill Resources for Economic Development or SHRED Act is being touted as a way to help some of the nation’s most popular national forests retain funds to help meet their needs.
Currently, all ski area permit fee revenues go to the national treasury. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, both Colorado Democrats, were among the legislators who introduced the SHRED Act.
“If you could triple their budget for rec, they could use it, so this would be a big step in the right direction,” Bennet said of national forests.
If approved, the SHRED Act would allow the White River National Forest to keep 60 percent of the fees it collects from ski areas that use public lands. In 2019, the White River collected $22.56 million in fees. If it kept 60% of that amount, it would produce $13.54 million.
The Act requires that 75% of the retained fees be used to support the Forest Service Ski Area Program and permitting needs, process proposal for ski area improvements, train staff and prepare for wildfire. In the White River in 2019, that would have generated $10.16 million.
The other 25% of the funds retained would address broader recreation needs on the forest, such as trail maintenance. Under that formula, the White River would have received $3.38 million from fees paid in 2019.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the SHRED Act would be a tremendous boost. The recreation program currently has about $2 million annually to cover the entire 2.3-million acre forest.
“It’s been working on baling wire and duct tape for many years,” he said. “The 25% gives us an opportunity to start addressing some of the other issues we’re experiencing related to recreation — trail damage, resource concerns, lack of enforcement, lack of boots on the ground.”
He said his staff hasn’t worked on specific plans on how to use the funds because the legislation must be passed first. However, the extra funds would be used to set a “baseline” budget for the recreation programs on the various ranger districts in the forest.
“You need to keep the trails cleared, the toilets clean and people safe,” Fitzwilliams said.
The SHRED Act has already had a hearing before the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, which is chaired by Neguse. It could go before the full House late this summer, he said.
Bennet said it is impossible to predict the fate of the bill, but he noted it was introduced with bipartisan support.
“The argument I’m going to have to make, and I think it’s a good argument, is that using this money in the national forests that generate the fees is a much more efficient way of spending the money than sending it back to Washington, putting it in the general treasury and then hoping something comes back here,” Bennet said.
More on the bill can be found at https://www.bennet.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/press-releases?id=91DDB204-004F-45F7-A4B8-0E442EEE296C.
Bennet and Neguse have introduced other legislation to try to generate dollars for national forests that don’t raise revenues through ski fees and for Bureau of Land Management holdings.
Neguse has introduced the 21st Century Conservation Corps Act. Details are at https://neguse.house.gov/imo/media/doc/Neguse_CCC_1Pager.pdf.
Bennet has introduced the Outdoor Recreation Partnership Act. Details are at https://www.bennet.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2021/4/bennet-introduces-legislation-to-invest-in-forest-watershed-restoration-across-the-west.
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