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We are the problem

Next time you want to blame someone for crowded forest trails and overloaded mountain peaks, grab a mirror or look around your favorite local watering hole.

It’s the booming populations of Pitkin, Garfield, Eagle and Summit counties that will cause a dramatic increase in use of the White River National Forest over the next two decades, along with growth on the Front Range.

“Population growth in the counties within and surrounding the forest will probably be the single largest impact on forest recreation management over the next 20 years,” predicted the 2002 Forest Plan, a document that dictates how the U.S. Forest Service will manage the 2.3 million-acre forest.

“Population growth rates of the local counties are projected to be higher than are most of the projected growth rates for recreation uses on a regional basis,” the plan continued. “Especially in areas around the higher population centers, capacity may be reached and the focus on uses may shift more toward accommodating uses associated with local populations rather than destination visitors.”

In other words, the habits of people who live in places like Aspen, Glenwood Springs, Edwards, Vail and Breckenridge will likely dictate how the forest is used and managed.

Developed campgrounds will be even more swamped on weekends and holidays as increasing numbers of locals head to the hills. Trails will be crowded with mountain bikers and rivers flooded with kayakers after 5 p.m., when locals get off work, rather than peaking at noon with out-of-town visitors.

The plan is filled with projections of how use will soar by the year 2020. Studies indicate that backpacking, day hiking, trail running, rafting, sailing and cross-country skiing in the Rocky Mountains will balloon by 200 percent between 1987 and 2020.

Two-thirds of the White River forest is managed as primitive or semi-primitive and nonmotorized, with no developed campgrounds and only lightly maintained trails. Still, demand is expected to outstrip supply for backpacking opportunities, day hiking and cross-country skiing, according to the plan.

The annual growth is expected to be greatest for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing at nearly 4 percent annually. Walking and hiking is close behind at 3.8 percent.

Mountain biking is growing at a 3.1 percent annual clip, snowmobiling is increasing at 2.7 percent per year and auto travel is going up by 2.4 percent.

The growth is greatest for what the Forest Service calls dispersed activities – where people can enjoy the wide open spaces of the backcountry – rather than uses that occur in developed areas, like downhill skiing and camping in campgrounds.

People want to enjoy the great outdoors, but on their own terms. That usually means apart from other users.

“The biggest challenge we have is the different expectations of the public,” said Rich Doak, recreation planner in the White River National Forest supervisor’s office.

Hikers who venture into the backcountry or wilderness, where motorized and mechanized uses are prohibited, might be looking for solitude. Mountain bikers might want to crank around a loop at their fastest time ever.

The conflicts between bikers and hikers might be manageable now, Doak said, but increasing numbers of participants inherently create problems.

Forest planners have worked up numbers about how much dispersed use the forest can absorb and still offer the same quality experience. It isn’t precise; in fact the details can be obscured by the big picture. For example, a place like Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon or the Maroon Bells near Aspen might be absorbing all the visits they can, while some obscure, high country lakes are essentially left to the mountain goats.

But on average, the plan estimates the maximum capacity of the entire forest from Memorial Day to the end of September at 9,796 recreation visits per day. The forest reached 45 percent of capacity in 2002. By 2010, use is expected to hit 57 percent of capacity. By 2020, the plan anticipates reaching 69 percent.

The planning numbers exclude visitors to developed campgrounds.

In wilderness areas, which comprise about 754,000 acres or one-third of the White River forest, capacity will be exceeded at hot spots during the life of the forest plan, but most areas will remain well below capacity.

Because of its location about one hour from Denver, the forest’s Dillon Ranger District faces issues that the other six districts cannot fathom. Not only must the trails, peaks and rivers of the district handle Summit County’s growing population; they also face invasion by hordes of Front Range residents.

“On 90- to 100-degree days down in Denver, people are looking for a cool place to go,” said Mike Liu, assistant ranger of the Dillon District.

In that district’s case, “local population” is expanded to include about 2 million Front Rangers. The two constituencies create different problems. Locals might contribute to the creation of “social trails,” or unofficial routes into the forest or the backcountry that the Forest Service would prefer not to exist, Liu explained. Visiting Front Rangers typically will stick to established trailheads, which might create crowding.

To handle all the people, both locals and tourists, will require more rules, said Doak. The prior forest plan, completed in 1984, didn’t anticipate the explosion in mountain biking that began just a couple of years later. But the 2002 plan requires that mountain bikers stay on existing, designated roads and trails, and refrain from cutting their own paths or gradually nibbling game trails into biker superhighways.

The plan also takes a step toward designating more routes specifically to motorized and nonmotorized uses.

As the number of people living around the national forest continues to grow, additional rules are inevitable – especially in high-use areas.

Doak said it will be a “last resort” to strictly limit numbers of visitors in popular parts of the forest, but more subtle efforts are already under way to limit visits to certain areas. Visitors to Lincoln Creek, east of Aspen, and Crater Lake in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, for example, can only camp in designated areas. Roads to places like Montezuma Basin, where the 14,265-foot Castle Peak is located, are maintained only to a four-wheel-drive standard.

The growing populations of the resort counties that surround the White River National Forest will require additional management tools or will simply bring about an age of Industrial Tourism.

“Larger numbers of recreation users, the broader range of their activities, and increasing penetration of the backcountry have resulted in greater impacts to the environment, overuse of some recreational facilities, and an increase in user conflicts,” the forest plan acknowledged.

“The challenge facing us is to optimize the recreation experience while balancing it with the need to protect wildlife and other environmental values,” the plan stated.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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