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Colorado public land managers rely on education, then enforcement to deal with a crush of long-term campers

Closing heavily used campsites is public lands “triage” as Forest Service and local officials struggle to protect natural resources from a growing wave of backcountry campers and explorers this summer.

Entrance of Gordon Gulch dispersed camping area on Thursday, May 20, 2021, near Nederland, CO. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
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One man dashed out of the dilapidated camper trailer as police cruisers rolled up to his encampment in the Arapaho Roosevelt National Forest. The site was trashed, with a newer — and likely stolen — catalytic converter sitting next to a fire pit filled with long stems of a marijuana plant. 

Happens that way all the time, said Nederland’s Town Marshal Larry Johns, who estimates his officers visit year-round campsites occupied by near-permanent residents at least once a week, along with Boulder County Sheriff’s deputies and Forest Service rangers. 

“It’s a statewide problem, but it’s an issue up and down the Front Range for sure,” said Johns, who investigates about one stabbing a year at long-term campgrounds on Forest Service land around his town. “With an easy link back to civilization for food, water and a bus system, that’s where we are seeing these encampments. It’s getting to be the new normal.”

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The Arapaho Roosevelt National Forest is hoping closures of several heavily-trafficked dispersed campsites in Boulder County will change the trajectory of use on public lands mauled by a surge of pandemic-fleeing campers and seasonal workers living outdoors in a housing crisis. 

Local and Forest Service law enforcement are bracing for an extra-busy summer when campers hunt for a smaller supply of campsites in the Arapaho Roosevelt, where 200,000 acres of scorched forest will remain closed in the Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Williams Fork burn scars and forest officials are closing down hundreds of illegal campsites.

Dispersed camping in five areas in the Arapaho Roosevelt is temporarily suspended because campers have spilled out of designated campgrounds and beat in hundreds of new campsites. The list includes:

  • Vasquez Creek and Little Vasquez Creek outside Winter Park, where narrow access roads are riddled with sites far from restrooms and fire rings in an area that feeds the town’s water supply. The closures there will last one year. 
  • Maxwell Falls near Evergreen, where hundreds of cars overflow the trailhead parking lot on weekends and illegal campfires threaten nearby homes, will be designated as day-use only for the next five years. 
  • Rainbow Lakes Road near Nederland has always been popular, with many dispersed camping sites on the road to the Rainbow Lakes campground. But last year campers created a mile-long stretch of campsites with illegal fire rings along North Boulder Creek, a primary drinking source for Boulder. Dispersed camping there will be closed for a year. 
  • Forest Service officials recently counted 70 visitor-created campsites along a 2-mile stretch of South Saint Vrain Creek near the Ceran Saint Vrain trail outside Jamestown. Those sites will be closed to camping for one year.  
  • Winiger Ridge near Gross Reservoir offers 26 designated campsites with fire rings and parking spots, but dozens more have cropped up in recent years. The corridor will be closed to camping for two years. 
The Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests is temporarily closing dispersed campsites along Rainbow Lakes Road to help protect the area after record traffic last summer. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

In the spots around Boulder County, it’s not just weekenders getting away. Long-term residents are crowding public lands with rogue campsites and those summer-long encampments are forcing short-term campers deeper into the hills. This summer’s restricted availability, combined with signs of yet another record-setting wave of outdoor adventurers, has rule enforcers on edge. 

“This is a step in the right direction, and it’s doing the right thing for our communities, our watersheds and for the resource. We need to take this pause,” said Reid Armstrong with the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. “Enforcement is going to be an issue whether we do this or not. When you have a city of millions trying to recreate on this small piece of public lands we can’t be everywhere at once and it will be a challenge. The best we can do is work on getting the message out and educating people. We believe most people want to do the right thing.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Boulder County deputies respond to calls at long-term campsites on the county’s federal lands at least once a week and sometimes daily on summer weekends. They think closing long-used sites could increase calls in those areas as nearby residents report camping violations. 

“Now they typically only call if something egregious is going on,” said Carrie Haverfield, a Boulder County Sheriff’s spokeswoman. 

But Haverfield said the sheriff thinks closing some areas “could help alleviate some of the major issues we are currently dealing with, including overcrowding.”

Beyond dense lines of cars hindering emergency access, law enforcement has seen crowding push visiting campers deeper into the woods where they create even more campsites.

Shutting off access should help with some crowding issues, Haverfield said. 

“We anticipate that the increase in use of public lands will continue to remain high with more people moving into Colorado and more people looking for recreational opportunities during the pandemic,” she said. 

More backcountry traffic

Crowding and growing impacts on public lands is not just a problem for Arapaho Roosevelt. Across the state, local officials and land managers are wrestling with increased traffic in the backcountry.

The Pike National Forest’s South Platte District last year began converting 340 dispersed campsites into designated sites that must be reserved. Crested Butte has a team of paid workers blanketing hundreds of acres around the Upper East River Valley as the region transitions more than 200 dispersed camping locations — used for decades — into designated, reserved campsites. The Town of Marble, the Forest Service and Gunnison County are grappling with growing numbers of all-terrain vehicles ripping through town to access the popular Lead King Loop in the White River National Forest. 

A stream flows through the Gordon Gulch dispersed camping sites Thursday, May 20, 2021, near Nederland, CO. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Rocky Mountain National Park last summer tested a timed entry program that limited the numbers of visitors to about 60% of the park’s capacity. The park was the third most trafficked in the country in 2019 with 4.67 million visitors and in July logged 1 million visitors. The park is renewing the reservation program this year, requiring all visitors to book timed arrivals that will limit capacity to 75% to 85% of parking inside the park. (Reservations are available at recreation.gov.)

While last year’s pass program was designed to limit crowding following wildfire closures during a pandemic that had scuttled shuttles, this year’s crowd control effort also is tied to housing scarcity for seasonal staff as well as reduced capacity on shuttles and closures from last summer’s Cameron Peak Fire.

Arapaho Roosevelt will use a similar timed-entry reservation system for access to Mount Evans and Brainard Lake this summer. Reservations for those two popular areas will be posted at recreation.gov soon. 

Colorado State Parks started requiring reservations for campsites in January 2020, and this summer just about every weekend is sold out at all the parks that allow camping. At Eldorado Canyon State Park, a 106-page draft management plan released last month suggests requiring reservations and a shuttle to access the park may help better manage overwhelming crowds. (Eldorado Canyon saw its average of 200,000 to 300,000 annual visitors jump to more than 500,000 in 2018.)

“We are seeing this across the board,” said Jason Clay with Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s northeast division. “We really do want people to get outdoors and enjoy their experience, but we also have to take care of our resources. More places across the state are learning there is a capacity at what the resources can allow without straining that resource.” 

To better educate — and warn — travelers about changes in access to Arapaho Roosevelt public lands, a first-of-its-kind consortium of federal, state and county land managers are joining in a unified campaign this summer. Get ready to hear this advice a lot this summer, and likely for many more years to come: Know before you go. 

It’s an educational mantra used for years by the winter backcountry community, encouraging mountain climbers and skiers to check avalanche forecasts, weather and maps before their adventures. Now it’s for everyone going into the woods at any time.

A global approach

Land managers in Denver as well as Larimer, Boulder and Jefferson counties have partnered with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in the effort to encourage Colorado travelers to check maps, advisories and websites before every visit to public lands. Don’t just load up and leave.

“Our goal is to have a more global approach,” said Armstrong with the roughly 1.5 million-acre Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest and Pawnee National Grassland, which has only four law enforcement officers. “We need to be working together to figure out how best to manage all this land, which is in this crazy intermix of private property as well. This is us identifying the places that need to be triaged right now to protect communities and watersheds.”

Land managers have ample reason to be worried about yet another busy spring, summer and fall in the Colorado hills. Camping reservations are selling out. Hunting and fishing license sales are spiking. People are still buying campers, RVs, bikes and other outdoor gear at a breakneck pace. 

From January to April this year, campers reserved 53,000 nights at Colorado State Parks, up from 31,644 in the same period of 2019. (Don’t compare that to 2020 numbers because campgrounds were closed in March and April as the pandemic erupted.)

And visitation to state parks is booming this year. From January to March, the state’s 42 parks counted 2.3 million visits, up from 1.7 million in 2019. The early-season visitation seems to indicate that even though bars, ballparks and theaters may be opening, folks are still keen on getting outside. 

“People have either discovered or rekindled a lot of their love for the outdoors and they are backing that up with a lot of their money to be able to get out there,” Clay said. “That could be a sign of a sustained presence this year. We can’t predict it definitely but the signs are all there and you are seeing all the different agencies across the state managing the land trying to allow for those crowds while working to protect resources.”

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