When was the last time you got outside, and how much did you spend to do it?
This is a question I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Especially after I tallied receipts from a few statewide camping trips, I can’t help but wonder: Is it just me, or do rising costs for outdoor recreation seem to be everywhere you look these days?
For starters, state campground fees have gone up in recent years. A basic campsite now costs between $22 and $28 per night and a single, full site costs up to $41 per night. The cheapest option, a primitive site, still ranges between $14 and $18.
These nightly fees add up quickly. They are the equivalent of somewhere between $420 and $1,230 per month, enough for monthly rent in some cases, depending on your campsite choice. Yet unlike a rental house, you must provide your own shelter, stoves and often water. Sure, rustic is part of the experience, but when did a tiny plot of dirt get so expensive?
It’s not only campground fees that are getting out of hand. There are now reservation fees, day-use fees, overnight fees, backpacking wilderness fees, shuttle or bus fees, trailhead parking fees, fees to hike certain mountains, license fees per vehicle and activity, and a potpourri of local, state and national park fees that aren’t always interchangeable.
Oh, and that new Colorado State Park pass with your vehicle? It only applies to the specific car you registered it with, not to you specifically, so you might still find yourself paying for a day pass as I recently did if you use an alternate mode of entry — all just to access the public land you already pay taxes for and want to recreate on. It’s death by a million cuts.
Of course, none of this addresses the seasonal costs of accessing public lands. In the winter, public land is frequently leased to private ski resorts that charge upwards of $1,300 for an annual lift pass. In the summer, those same public lands can then be used by the resorts for other activities such as mountain biking.
Yet oddly enough, summer activities are not covered by the annual lift pass, requiring additional fees per activity despite possessing a valid lift pass to that mountain. Add to all this the inflated costs of specialized clothing and gear required to safely recreate in the backcountry, and getting outside in Colorado is quickly becoming a luxury for the rich.
The growing trend of cost creep across most goods in society is no secret and already worrisome. However, the potential inability of millions of people to access their natural landscape is uniquely concerning. Outdoor access is essential to human health and well-being, and research consistently shows immense overall health benefits to getting outside. This is especially true for mental health, a national struggle in recent years, meaning we should be doing everything possible to improve access to the outdoors, not making more barriers to access for those who are already struggling.
Highlighting how fee increases are one hindrance to people getting outside is particularly relevant in the context of concerns about dwindling outdoor use. While the pandemic helped get more people into the woods, albeit less often overall, a recent study showed that young Americans between 13 and 24 are struggling to get outside at all, and overall family outings are on the decline. Given the sharp costs associated with recreation, is it really any surprise?
Accessibility to outdoor rec is especially important to Colorado. We boast some of the most stunning wild spaces in the nation, and there’s no doubt the outdoor industry is a key part of our economic future. In 2021, it contributed $11.6 billion to the state’s economy, and it’s anticipated to grow substantially in the upcoming years. For the most part, that’s great. So long as it doesn’t come at the expense of Colorado residents who need healthy access to their own backyard.
Balancing cost, use and upkeep is tough, and increased demand is certainly part of the increases in fees. Yet there’s much more to it. After years of shortsightedness by state leaders, the lack of planning ahead is also contributing to cost hikes.
For example, as the state population has ballooned, we’ve failed to keep up with expanding public transit and affordable housing. This is especially true when it comes to accessing popular outdoor destinations and mountain towns, two key issues that directly play into how and where people can access the wild.
There are some solutions to help ease the cost burden on residents. Expanding and promoting new trail networks, especially close to the Front Range, would help diversify use and address high use-associated costs such as parking and permit fees. Similarly, creating more primitive and basic campgrounds throughout the state with lower resident fees disperses use and lowers costs. We could also increase public transit to popular mountain destinations such as ski resorts and common hikes, and consolidate state fees and passes more effectively.
But what do you think? What would help you and your family the most when it comes to safely accessing our outdoors more? Because when it comes to natural environments, we are some of the luckiest people in the nation. It’d be a shame if we lost access to it.
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