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Record traffic in South Platte forest district spurs first-ever designated camping plan

Pike National Forest district is converting 340 dispersed campsites into reserved, fee sites in a pilot program that mirrors reservation systems installed at other popular locations on public lands.

The Pike National Forest's South Platte Ranger District has seen record traffic this summer, with many campers trashing dispersed campsites. The district has installed a first-ever program that converts those sites into pay campsites that can be reserved. (Courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
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Illegal parking spots that become networks of roads pushing deeper into the forest. Piles of garbage left in campsites. Abandoned, smoking campfires. Illegal shooting. And so much poop. 

That’s what pushed Brian Banks to the limit. The messes left by the masses have spurred the district ranger of the Pike National Forest’s 450,000-acre South Platte Ranger District to install a system to convert his district’s bounty of once-free, dispersed campsites into pay sites that can be reserved. 

“We really consider ourselves the canary in the coal mine for what’s to come,” said Banks, whose district spans the foothills from Mount Evans to Pikes Peak. 

For years, the South Platte District was the place for a quick camping getaway. Close to major metro areas and easily accessed, areas around Kenosha Pass, Guanella Pass, Buffalo Creek, the South Platte River and Rampart Range Road are packed nearly every weekend with campers. But this summer was different. 

“What we have seen in growth over the last five years is the equivalent of what we saw happen in one summer,” said Banks, who has worked for the district for 18 years, the past five as its top manager. “We were already struggling to manage the capacity and this summer we saw an explosion of users, particularly novice users visiting the district for the first time.”

Rangers wrote more tickets this summer than ever before, citing people for trashing sites as well as shooting, camping and parking illegally. And now the South Platte Ranger District is the first in Colorado to install the reservation and pay system on formerly dispersed campsites. 

Reservations and fees are likely a sign of what’s to come for other heavily impacted forests. The pilot program in the South Platte Ranger District draws comparisons with other relatively new reservation systems deployed at popular spots across the state. 

Like the reservations needed for hiking up to Hanging Lake. And the camping permits required around Conundrum Hot Springs. And the shuttle service to access the Maroon Bells in the White River National Forest and even the plan announced by Vail Resorts last month that will require reservations for ski days at the state’s most trafficked resorts. 

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

“We were experiencing high volumes of users camping on every single road across the entire district and it was getting to the point where we were seeing huge resource impacts,” said Banks, mirroring an oft-repeated lament of Forest Service officials charged with protecting lands in other heavily impacted locations.  

The South Platte District started testing the concept of pay, reserved diverse campsites eight years ago. This fall Banks’ team identified 340 sites that will be converted, with assigned parking spots, pit toilets and fire rings. That number will likely grow. As many as 94 sites will be managed by a concessionaire, Rocky Mountain Recreation Company. 

Campers will have to pay somewhere around $15 a night. The concessionaire will have to direct 19% of gross revenues back into those campsites. The cost of the sites will pay for pumping out and cleaning pit toilets, Banks said. 

“We are basically at a point on the South Platte where we can’t continue to do things the same way and expect different results,” Banks said. “We have to try something new.”

Some campsites are occupied by people who living in the South Platte Ranger District. The Forest Service is testing a new system that converts the 450,000-acre district’s campsites into designated pay campsites that can be reserved. (Courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

Other district rangers are keeping close tabs on the pilot program, especially after the deluge of campers across all of Colorado this summer, Banks said. 

The traffic during the pandemic accelerated a trend driven by a new generation of campers looking for a different experience than a traditional campground, he said. These new-school adventurers are OK with fewer amenities in exchange for privacy and a wilder feel. They are buying RVs and camping trailers like crazy to get farther afield and off the beaten track. 

“Paying a reduced fee for dispersed designated sites is something that is appealing to them,” Banks said. 

Not all the campsites in the district are going to be available for online reservations, leaving options open for Front Rangers who make the late call to jump in the car and camp on Friday or Saturday night. But off-highway-vehicle users who travel from across the country to explore the Rampart Range trails have expressed support for the reservation system that enables them to lock in a spot for their vacation before they arrive. 

New signage will help campers find designated campsites in the South Platte Ranger District. (Courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

Banks also has heard from district old timers who used to be able to drive into the district and camp and shoot anywhere they wanted. But times have changed, he said, and “change can be really hard and I’m sensitive to that.” He tells them straight: “Our ability to provide for recreation in a sustained capacity is no longer effective under the current system.”

Jim Peasley has been riding dirt bikes and camping in the Rampart Range for more than 50  years. The longtime liaison officer for the Rampart Range Motorcycle Management Committee has shepherded the construction and maintenance of hundreds of miles of trails in the range’s motorized recreation area, deploying his committee’s volunteers with federal and state support.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes,” he said. 

But over the past five to 10 years, the pace of that change has accelerated. In recent years Peasley has seen more people who are transient setting up semi-permanent camps at spots that once were used by weekend campers. The nonprofit committee that formed in 1972 has traditionally resisted the South Platte Ranger District’s push toward more designated, pay campsites. 

“But honestly, in the last few years it’s gotten so bad that even our members can’t find a decent place to camp so we finally as a committee decided to get on board,” Peasley said. 

Forty years ago, anyone could drive up to the forest surrounding the South Platte River and in the Ramparts and find a camp spot just about anytime.

“You just can’t do that today with the amount of traffic and people who are up there,” he said. “I think if you have a situation where you have a contractor who is patrolling the sites and cleaning them and collecting fees it’s going to be a better overall experience for people who are actually camping up there.”

New signage and fire rings will help protect resources in first-ever designated campsites in the South Platte Ranger District. (Courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

Fees and reservations raise some barriers but lower others

The outdoor industry, in a years-long push to broaden the appeal of camping and outdoor activities to a more diverse audience, has identified the cost of outdoor recreation as a barrier that limits access for urbanites and people of color. The simultaneous movement toward corralling more outdoor users into paying for access to outdoor playgrounds can threaten that effort. It’s a fine line for underfunded land managers tasked with keeping public lands open and accessible to the public while developing new revenue sources to support the preservation of natural resources.

Patricia Cameron founded Colorado Blackpackers in 2019 as a way to get more people of color outdoors. Her nonprofit leads camping trips and outdoor excursions as well as offering free and discounted gear. 

She says Blackpackers serves those “at the intersection of economic vulnerability and underrepresentation.” And she’s wary of how fees on public lands can become obstacles for people who want to spend more time outside.

“Anytime you put a cost on something, regardless of the amount, you start limiting people and leaving people out,” she said. 

But the new reservation system could make camping trips less intimidating for newcomers, she said, eliminating the first-timer angst that comes with trying to find a campsite in a forest filled with more experienced — and largely white — campers. So Cameron hopes the reservation system, even though it costs money, could lower other barriers that can prevent people of color from getting outside and hopefully sparking a passion that could lead to more outdoor experiences. 

“I really feel like the outdoors has a great support base here in Colorado and I think we should be leading the nation in a lot of different ways so we can try new things like this out,” she said. “People who believe in the outdoors and love the outdoors often can dig into their pockets to support the outdoors and I think they can compensate for people who maybe aren’t ready to dig into their pockets just yet.”