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White River sees surge in visitors

A surge in the popularity of the White River National Forest over the past eight years has made it busier than any other forest and even national treasures like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone.

A new U.S. Forest Service study shows that the sprawling playground jumped from the fifth-busiest forest in the country in 1995 to the most heavily visited in 2002.

A survey conducted by the Forest Service between October 2001 and September 2002 estimated there were 9.67 million visits to the forest by everyone from leaf peepers to mountain climbers and from skiers to dirt bikers.

The visitation jumped 9 percent from 8.84 million in 1995, the last time data was collected, according to the White River National Forest Plan, a document that outlines management strategies.

Some of the surge in visits can be explained by a different measurement used by the Forest Service. It historically measures a forest’s activity by “recreation visitor days,” or one person visiting the forest for at least 12 hours. However, in its latest study it defined a visit as any length of stay.

That significantly boosted the amount of downhill skiing activity in the White River National Forest, which boasts 11 ski areas. Now day skiers who come from the Front Range and visit a place like Copper Mountain would be considered a visitor even if they didn’t stay for 12 hours for a particular outing.

The 9.67 million visits to the White River far exceeds the next busiest forest. The Arapaho-Roosevelt Forest near Fort Collins had an estimated 6.2 million visits.

The Tonto National Forest had 5.75 million visits to rank third busiest. The Pike-San Isabel, easily accessible from Colorado’s Front Range, ranked sixth busiest with 3.87 million visits annually.

The White River National Forest’s visitation figures are even more impressive when compared to national parks. It drew more than the Great Mountain National Park, which pulls in 9.32 million visitors.

Other top draws in the national park system don’t come close to luring the number of people of the White River National Forest. The Grand Canyon racks up about four million annual visitors. The Statue of Liberty attracts 3.4 million. Yosemite is visited by 3.36 million people, and Yellowstone weighs in at 2.97 million.

The White River has a built-in advantage over many forests and parks because it is so large. Its 2.3 million acres cover parts of nine western Colorado counties. The forest, which surrounds the Roaring Fork Valley, stretches from the Breckenridge area in the east to the Rifle area in the west, and from the Meeker area in the north to south of Aspen.

The forest boasts 11 ski areas, 62 campgrounds with 1,400 spaces, three major reservoirs, 200 caves and three backcountry hut systems.

The Forest Service study suggested that the estimated use of the White River National Forest may be low. The survey was conducted during a period where travel was reduced in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Visitation was probably also affected by wildfires that swept Colorado in summer 2002 and restrictions on campfires in campgrounds and in the backcountry.

The report noted that ski area business was down 5 percent, campgrounds in the White River hosted 10 to 20 percent fewer people and a record-breaking drought reduced commercial river-runner business by 39 percent statewide. In other words, the White River National Forest could be topping 10 million visits this season without that laundry list of calamities.

Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle noted in a prepared statement that it is fortunate from an ecological standpoint that the vast majority of the visits are at developed recreation areas. Ski areas, for example, account for about seven million visits to the forest. That was 71 percent of the visitation for 2002.

The Forest Service plans to update its visitation information for every forest every four years. Surveys of users will be conducted for 25 percent of the forests annually. Updated information could bump White River out of the top spot next season.


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