A surge in recreational camping around Buena Vista and Salida is wreaking havoc on natural areas and spurring public lands managers to mull the closure of dozens of dispersed campsites.
In the county that’s 82% public land and home to a fifth of the state’s fourteeners, wildlife populations are plunging in the face of habitat loss and an increase in motorized recreation. Ranchers are reporting growing problems with campers damaging fences, leaving gates open and trampling grassy meadows bare. Poorly tended campfires are raising wildfire fears. Trash and human waste are overwhelming public lands workers and threatening to mar the longest stretch of Gold Medal trout waters in Colorado.
The number of new dispersed sites created by visitors has skyrocketed in recent years, according to county surveys. Yet the area remains governed by decades-old regulations that officials say are inadequate to deal with the flood of visitors.
“Some of these places are starting to look like developed campgrounds already, as the sites keep getting closer together,” said Perry Edwards, the Forest Service district ranger for the Salida district. “Human waste is becoming a big problem. We’re seeing more of what we call Charmin flowers.”
The tension comes as public lands managers across Colorado have been scrambling to respond to surging visitation on public lands — particularly since pandemic-era shutdowns drove many people outdoors to recreate and socialize. But in Chaffee County, officials say the problem is made more complicated by the severe shortage of workforce housing, leaving those who are homeless sleeping in campsites.
Chaffee County is not alone
Pike National Forest’s South Platte district began converting 340 dispersed campsites into reservation-only designated sites in 2020. More than 200 dispersed campsites on National Forest land near Crested Butte were converted into designated sites in 2021.
But clamping down on camping leaves land managers with a different problem: how to manage impacts without simply shifting the burden.
“If we shut too much down, it’s like squeezing a balloon — it expands elsewhere,” Edwards said.
The Forest Service, which governs most public lands in Chaffee County, is considering closing down some dispersed camping areas where use has surged.
The Salida and Leadville field offices of the Forest Service are working on a draft management plan to be released to the public in coming weeks, Edwards said. The hope is to get feedback on areas under consideration for closure to overnight camping or conversion to reservable, numbered sites, among other options. Strategies to deal with the surge could also include adding restrooms to high-use areas, or leaning into emerging phone apps that let users find designated dispersed sites and see which are already taken.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management is moving forward with a plan targeting 180 dispersed campsites on multiple tracts of BLM land near Salida and Buena Vista for stricter management, said Kalem Lenard, the agency’s assistant field manager for the Royal Gorge district.
A draft plan proposes several options that could close many of the sites to overnight camping, but leave a handful open. Most options call for them to remain free for use on a first-come, first-served basis – although likely numbered and perhaps reservable in the future if conditions warrant.
Most options in the plan would require visitors to pack out human waste. All call for vehicles to be parked no more than one car width off established roads — a change from 1990s-era rules that allow vehicles to travel 100 to 300 feet off of roads, so long as travel does not damage the land or streams.
The bulk of the sites are in three tracts: scrubland south of Salida known as Burmac; Shavano, along a popular route into a cluster of nearby 14,000-foot mountains west of Salida; and Fourmile, just across the Arkansas River from Buena Vista. Another cluster of sites sits at the Hecla Junction entrance to Browns Canyon National Monument south of Buena Vista, and still more are scattered elsewhere in the county.
Many of the sites were created or significantly expanded by users pushing beyond developed campsites as visitation surged.
The BLM’s Royal Gorge field office, which manages more than 660,000 acres of public land stretching from the Wyoming border to the New Mexico line, saw 1.5 million visitors in 2010. By 2019, the number grew to 1.9 million. In 2020, as pandemic shutdowns saw hordes of people seek recreation on public lands, visitation soared to 4.7 million. In 2021 it dropped back to 2.7 million — still 42% higher than before the pandemic.
The flood of visitors, many of them new to dispersed camping, have brought bad behavior with them, Lenard said.
“If people would not leave their trash, if they would pack out human waste, if they would use fire pans instead of fire rings, if they would change plans rather than creating new campsites when other sites are full, then these management plans wouldn’t be necessary,” he said. “But we’re at where we’re at.”
Would vault toilets and reservation fees help?
Lenard said the goal for many of the campsites is to attempt to continue to provide a “dispersed” camping experience, but keep them closely monitored to make sure people are following the rules.
“If monitoring shows we’re successful with designated sites and educating visitors, hopefully that’s the model that will work,” he said. “If it doesn’t, we’ll have to ratchet up.”
If conditions continue to degrade, the BLM could begin installing vault toilets and instituting paid reservation systems to offset the cost of restrooms and other amenities.
The public comment period on the initial draft of the management plan wrapped up on Jan. 31, and Lenard said the BLM hopes to begin implementing new restrictions by spring 2023.
Dispersed camping is important not just because many users prefer it over campgrounds, but because existing campgrounds are already overwhelmed, said Ben Lara, the recreation program manager for the Forest Service’s Salida district.
“We’ve got 14 official campgrounds in our district, and they’re all busy,” he said. “If you tried to reserve a site in one of them today, you’d find they’re booked all through the summer already. When people encounter that, they say, well, where can we go? Dispersed camping provides that overflow.”
The BLM has had some success with converting campsites at two areas north of Buena Vista. BLM and Colorado Parks and Wildlife converted a dispersed camping area to an 18-site camping area called Tunnel View last year, and have in the past decade added improvements to the Turtle Rock camping area, including fire rings, picnic tables and vault toilets.
More trash, less wildlife
Outdoor recreation accounts for a third of Chaffee County’s economy, but that has come with a cost, according to Envision Chaffee County’s “Recreation Report Card,” published in 2020.
“Almost as soon as we started looking into the state of recreation here, we started hearing a lot of concern that the quality of outdoor experiences is rapidly declining,” said Cindy Williams, the co-chair of Envision Chaffee County, which started its review in 2017.
Local public lands volunteer groups documented more than 2,800 dispersed camping sites that generated more than a ton and a half of garbage, the report found. More than 550 sites were contaminated by human waste.
Dispersed campsites have more than doubled in the Fourmile Recreation Area in the past seven years, the report found. The sites are growing bigger, too. Survey results showed half of the campsites in the Fourmile area are two to five times larger than the average site seven years ago.
“It used to be a couple decades ago, someone might go up there on the weekend and pitch a tent, but now you’re seeing people with big RVs, multiple vehicles, toy haulers, four-wheelers, side-by-sides — it’s much more intensive use,” Williams said.
The surge in visitation, along with impacts from development, drought and climate change are having dire consequences for wildlife, the report found.
Mountain goat populations in Chaffee County dropped 32% between 2000 and 2019, the report found. Bighorn sheep bands dropped 29% in the same period.
Elk populations declined 11% in the same period, which the report links to data from a 2018 Colorado Parks and Wildlife study showing that elk flee areas where people are recreating, and that human disturbance can reduce elk calf survival.
All-terrain vehicles are the most disruptive to elk, CPW found, followed by mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding.
“When exposed to these activities, elk spent more time escaping rather than feeding and resting,” the report says.
Ranchers are reporting increasing trouble with recreation users, including the destruction of livestock forage, gates left open allowing livestock to wander, and conflicts between livestock and campers’ dogs. Data suggests dispersed camping is costing local agricultural producers more than $100,000 a year, Williams said.
As visitation has soared, public lands budgets have declined. Combined budgets for the Forest Service, BLM and Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area in Chaffee County dropped 11% from 2016 to 2019, while visitor use increased by 13% a year, the report found.
Public lands staff are “completely overwhelmed,” Williams said.
In response, public land agencies and county officials plan to keep turning to volunteer groups and county-funded rangers for tasks like campsite cleanup and visitor education — one of the linchpins of the county’s recreation management plan, passed last June.
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Other goals of the plan include slashing the annual growth in dispersed campsites, though Williams said county planners are concerned closing too many will just spread the damage around to even more areas.
Williams said planners are hoping to encourage the development of more private campgrounds, and talking to private landowners about offering up agricultural land for camping through mobile apps like Hipcamp. Williams hopes that visitor outreach and education can reduce destructive impacts in the meantime.
“We have world-class recreation assets, but we need to work together to keep them that way,” she said.
Camping or housing?
Another challenge facing land managers looking to close down dispersed campsites: many are used long term by members of the local workforce shut out of housing by skyrocketing rents and real estate prices.
Public lands are a “stopgap measure” in the face of a severe shortage of affordable housing locally, said Becky Gray, who heads the Chaffee County Housing Authority.
“Affordable housing is a supply and demand issue,” Gray said. “At this point, the demand is essentially unlimited.”
Local workers living on public lands is nothing new in Chaffee County, where for years young raft guides have camped out through the summer to save money — or simply for the adventure.
“There are many valuable members of our communities who spent their first summer here living in cars, but back then, once they fell in love with the place, they could afford to put down roots,” Gray said. “That doesn’t exist anymore. We can’t just let camping be the default option for workforce housing.”
The median sale price for a single-family home in Chaffee County sat at $585,000 in December, a 27.2% spike over 2020. Average rental rates are harder data to come by, Gray said, though studio apartments on the Chaffee County Rentals Facebook page are listed for $1,000 a month.
Like much of Colorado, Chaffee County has seen an influx of new residents during the pandemic, Gray said, pushing housing prices past the ability of wages to keep up. Gray said a popular sandwich shop in Salida is starting new staffers at $20 an hour — still not enough for many employees to cover rent.
Counting how many campsites are occupied by long-term residents is difficult, said Lenard, the BLM manager. Williams, with Envision Chaffee County, said volunteers estimated 6% of the 2,800 dispersed sites they counted, roughly 168, showed signs of residential use.
Transitioning residential campers into stable housing is a difficult task, Gray said.
“We don’t have any place for them to go,” she said. “If we had a hotel or apartment complex we could send them to, that would be great.”
Gray said her agency hopes to build a 17-unit workforce housing development in Salida called Jane’s Place, which would include dormitory-style rooms. The estimated cost: $5 million and climbing.
Squatting on public land is particularly damaging, said Lenard, the BLM manager.
“Where does someone living in a tent for months on end go to the bathroom?” he said. “Hopefully people can appreciate the reasoning why residing on public lands is illegal. We wouldn’t have public lands as we know them if that were allowed.”
Lenard said he’s optimistic camping in Chaffee County can be brought under control, and public lands maintained for future generations.
“There’s a joke among park rangers: We say we’ve never met one single person who doesn’t pack out their trash,” he said. “Everyone swears it’s not them. But it’s somebody. We’re past time to point fingers — this is about all of us. As people who love public lands, we can all do better. We have to do better.”