There is something called the “knucklehead factor” in the algorithm of public land management.
While never spoken of publicly, federal land managers talk among themselves about the challenges of dealing not just with visitors who maybe are not aware of rules, but also with the ones who are irresponsible and dangerous.
And lately, as record-setting numbers of Coloradans flood public lands, the “knucklehead factor” has grown exponentially. That means coals abandoned in fresh fire pits. Shooting in the dark. Pushing OHVs beyond trails. Walking on that log at Hanging Lake. Breaking down gates and just a general disregard for rules, signs and other humans.
They are in the minority, those knuckleheads. But they are stressing public lands already feeling the pressure of masses urged to look to the “vast, great outdoors” as an escape from the monotony of quarantine and the stress of pandemic.
“We are seeing normal use patterns multiplied, so we if had bad apples out there they are multiplied now,” says Aaron Mayville, the deputy forest supervisor for the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest.
A couple weekends ago, Mayville’s rangers visited popular Maxwell Falls near Evergreen, which regularly ranks on Front Range listicles of close-in waterfall hikes. The parking lot at the trailhead holds about 40 cars. There were 900 on that Saturday, spilling every which way.
“Every trailhead is seeing that kind of traffic. It’s record use. Fourth of July numbers in April and May,” Mayville says.
So what will the actual Fourth of July be like? The answer to that has Colorado Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Parks and Wildlife managers fretting and offering a long list of advice.
First and foremost: Just about the entire state is under fire restrictions that limit all open flames to fire pits in established campgrounds (which, by the way, are 100% booked this weekend). So stir a few extra gallons of water into any fire pit before walking away.
“Your campfire is not out until you can touch the coals with your bare hand. That requires water, stirring and then more water,” says BLM spokeswoman Maribeth Pecotte, who is seeing campers pushing well beyond established campsites as crowds fill campgrounds. (“Record fees” collected from the BLM’s put-ins and take-outs on the Upper Colorado River, as well, she says.)
Second: Have a backup plan for when the remote campground no one ever goes to is full.
“Not just a Plan B, but maybe a Plan C, D and E,” says Bill Jackson, the Dillon District ranger for the White River National Forest. “The popular spots are going to be packed. That’s a guarantee. Exploring new places off the beaten track is the name of the game this summer.”
Jackson suggests everyone who plans on visiting public lands this summer — and especially this weekend — should do their homework and craft a malleable plan for the getaway.
Which brings us to the third critical piece of advice offered by the experts: Be prepared.
The Boy Scouts motto is in full effect in Colorado’s high country. When the campground is full, travelers will need their own source of water. They will need to be able to pack out their waste should the pit toilets still be closed to limit the spread of COVID-19. They will need to have maps, food and proper gear if they are adventuring. They will need to be self-sufficient.
“We just really need people to be aware and cognizant of where they are parking and how they may be affecting other people,” says Marcia Gilles, the acting district ranger for the Vail area’s Holy Cross District of the White River National Forest, which, by the way, is the most trafficked forest in the country. “There are definitely some creative campsites popping up out there. I think people are ready to get out right now and they are maybe not thinking through the full plan they might need for getting out there.”
Gilles says recent weekends have seen cars spilling from the Cross Creek and Holy Cross trailheads. Her team recently increased the number of reservations available to hikers wanting to climb up to Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon. The White River last year installed a reservation system that capped the number of daily visitors to the wildly popular trail at 615 per day. The coronavirus and a scuttled shuttle system pushed that down to 128 a day and by late April, Hanging Lake was booked every day through August.
This week the forest upped the daily cap to 240 through August, with forest officials tracking the spread of COVID-19 in Garfield County before opening up additional slots in September and October.
That unique reservation model has drawn the eyes of managers of popular public destinations across the country, Gilles says.
“There are some great opportunities people have with these extremely limited numbers,” Gilles says. “They feel like they have it to themselves and they are having a really more primitive experience than people have had at Hanging Lake in the last decade.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is helping visitors to Lake Pueblo State Park prepare for anything but a primitive experience. The agency this week told Lake Pueblo visitors that all the park’s 400-plus campsites were booked and warned that the park would reach capacity at some point on weekend days, which could come as early as 10 a.m. That it can take an hour or longer to get into the park and possibly a two-hour wait to launch a boat. On Memorial Day, the agency temporarily shut the park’s gates for the first time to deter crowds and noted that Lake Pueblo was on track to set a visitation record.
“Be prepared to walk long distances to get to and from your vehicle,” reads the agency’s Lake Pueblo website.
The White River’s quiet Blanco Ranger District in Meeker includes the Flat Tops Wilderness.
Typically, a wilderness ranger can spend entire days in the Flat Tops and not see a single hiker.
“This year he is seeing several groups of people every day,” Blanco District Ranger Curtis Keetch said. “He’s a local resident who’s lived up here a very long time and he was telling me yesterday he’s never seen it so busy in the wilderness.”
Keetch said he’s seen parking lots that typically have a car or two on weekends swell with 20 or 30 vehicles.
“And all our campgrounds, they’ve never been fully booked and now, they all are,” Keetch said.
Public land managers are not bemoaning the crowds. They cheer when Americans get outside and enjoy their public lands. More visitors means more people recognizing the value of the outdoor experience, said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
“Every time I talk with a congressional staffer, I tell them ‘if you don’t think public lands are important to this country, you need to get out here and see what’s going on right now,’ just to reinforce the fact that we need to invest in these things,” Fitzwilliams says. “The Latin translation for recreate is re-create, to restore. And that’s what we are seeing. People are seeking restoration on their public lands. It’s a challenge, sure, but it’s a beautiful thing to see.”