Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Gridlock at the Capitol Creek trailhead two weekends ago was a potent and pungent reminder that mixing cattle with people doesn’t always work. Despite the best intentions of all involved, the situation was bewildering as competing needs came into conflict on public lands.
Cattle ranchers hold the most senior traditional land use, having grazed their cattle on Forest Service allotments for more than a century. Hikers are a relatively recent user group that seeks a wilderness experience on the same lands where cattle fatten up on lush mountain fodder. The growing number of hikers is only going to exacerbate friction between these divergent interest groups.
The Forest Service strives to fulfill its multiple-use mandate by catering to both cattle and people, despite conflicting needs. The “Land of Many Uses” sometimes fails to achieve the ambition of making everybody happy, and that was the experience at Capitol Creek.
I inadvertently put myself in the middle of it by riding my mountain bike to the trailhead for what I thought would be a serene walk along the ditch trail to the subalpine meadows overlooking the Upper Valley. I wasn’t expecting solitude, but the congestion was almost laughable.
It began at a closed gate on the Capitol Creek Road a mile or so from the trailhead. I went through the gate and noticed a pair of horseback riders coming down the road. They were closely followed by half a dozen cows and calves, all bellowing their hearts out. Just then an SUV pulled up behind me, blocking the gate and the road.
As the cattle grouped up at the gate, a friendly woman on horseback nodded toward the trailhead, “It’s awful busy up there … must be 35 cars.” She explained that she and her fellow horsemen were trying to keep the cows from coming down the road, having recently moved them to the high country for summer grazing. I wished her luck and pushed past the cattle. In another hundred yards, another batch of boisterously bellowing bovines stopped me. I pushed through these and kept on going.
Leaving my bike at the trailhead, I sauntered up the ditch trail, taking in the summer finery. After five minutes, I was met by a bunch of cows and calves approaching at a trot down the narrow trail. A backpacker plodded behind them. I climbed up the steep bank above the ditch and let the skittish cows pass. The backpacker shook his head in dismay: “There must at least 50 more coming behind me,” he warned.
Not eager to sift through the oncoming herd, I turned back and followed the hiker and his cattle consort. The bellowing was so loud it became comical, but it signified that these cows were confused and disoriented. There were too many hikers unintentionally moving them around, separating cows and calves, botching up the age old summer migration.
Coasting back down the road on my bike, I navigated through more cattle and more cars. When I got back to the closed gate, the cowboys were standing around looking helpless. Cars were moving up and down the narrow road, each needing to get through the gate where the bawling cattle milled. The cowboys manned the gate, becoming quaint, costumed doormen for the hikers.
I felt sorry for the cowboys. I felt sorry for the cattle. I felt sorry for the hikers who crowded in unknowingly. Everyone was pleasant and smiling, but it was obvious that the situation was a mess. The multiple-use concept was a complete and utter failure.
Ranchers are realizing that diminished returns from their grazing allotments within major public thoroughfares. Some have given up on such conflicts, even when interfering hikers are pleasant and accommodating. Too many people make an irreconcilable problem for livestock and their handlers as was proven that day at Capitol Creek.
Maybe things quieted down during the week. Maybe the hikers thinned out and the cowboys were finally able to push their cows through the tide of human traffic. Had public lands managers been on hand, the scene last weekend would have been instructive. They might have realized the mistake of pitting two user groups against each other and hoping for the best.
Making the multiple use concept work in high-intensity situations like Capitol Creek requires coordination and choreography, sensitivity and signage. Otherwise, polite smiles will turn to scowls as stressed-out user groups vie for an overtaxed public resource.