Following a year that saw mind-boggling numbers of Coloradans seeking pandemic refuge in national parks, forests and county open spaces, public land managers are bracing for more trail crowding, jammed parking lots and resource damage caused by those who don’t understand — or care — about outdoors etiquette.
The desire to get outside for physical and mental well-being during a public health crisis stoked last year’s surge, but the trend of visitation growth predates the pandemic and has been driven by Colorado population growth. Now the crush to recreate outdoors could increase, even if COVID-19 numbers were to decline this year, because so many newcomers enjoyed their outdoor experiences after gyms, movie theaters and other forms of indoor entertainment shut down.
“We think once people have discovered that enjoyment, they’re going to continue to come,” said Reid Armstrong, public affairs specialist for the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, which are located along the Continental Divide from Mount Evans to Wyoming. “They’ve gone out and bought their RVs, their rooftop tents, their backcountry ski gear. Sales of that kind of equipment also are exploding. Once people have outfitted themselves and gotten into it, I don’t think they’re going to stop wanting to go do that. We certainly are planning for 2021 to be similar to 2020 in the recreation world.”
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Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, said forest service officials must look for short-term strategies and long-term solutions.
“Short-term, we’re thinking, ‘Spring is right around the corner, COVID hasn’t gone away,” Fitzwilliams said. “Many of those newcomers found a new passion in life. We don’t have a lot of resources or things we can change in short order between now and when the summer season comes upon us. However, we can be better aware and prepared.”
White River, which is one of 11 national forests in Colorado, ranks as the busiest in the country. Stretching from Summit County past Glenwood Springs on both sides of Interstate 70, it’s home to 10 fourteeners — almost as many as the state of California, which has 12 — and a dozen ski areas which operate on national forest land. Fitzwilliams was surprised by visitation patterns he saw last summer.
“Our high-use areas were pretty normal,” Fitzwilliams said. “We’re somewhat used to the chaos of a lot of people in the summertime, and sometimes in the winter in certain places. It’s more that we saw significant increases in areas we had never seen that many people. Areas around Rifle and up by Meeker, that Flattop country, out of the I-70 and Roaring Fork corridors, we saw significant increases in people. We’ve got to be better prepared for that.”
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The pandemic forced some temporary management restrictions last summer. Rocky Mountain National Park instituted a time-entry reservation system with the intent of restricting park visitation to 60% of capacity from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Roosevelt National Forest instituted a time-entry system at popular Brainard Lake, restricting parking lots to 80% of maximum capacity. The Arapaho National Forest elected not to open the Mount Evans Road to the mountain’s 14,265-foot summit, a decision it reached in collaboration with its partners, Denver Mountain Parks and CDOT.
Rocky Mountain National Park officials expect to return to pre-pandemic entry policies this year. From 2010 to 2019, annual visitation increased 58% in the nation’s third-busiest park, and intermittent vehicle restrictions due to congestion and crowding have been a regular occurrence there since 2016.
At Brainard Lake, a gateway to the Indian Peaks Wilderness 12 miles north of Nederland, the same COVID-related rules will be in effect this year that were put in place last year.
“We don’t expect COVID to go away in the summer of 2021,” Armstrong said. “We just don’t think there’s going to be enough vaccinations distributed at that point, based on what we’re hearing. So we are planning for status quo, what we did in 2020 for 2021, the 80% and time entry.”
The purpose is not only to limit gatherings in parking lots, but to give workers time to clean restrooms and count cars to determine how many new visitors can be let in.
“If we do find that the COVID situation has changed,” Armstrong said, “we can change our 80% capacity to 100%.”
The Mount Evans Road, the highest paved road in North America, will reopen this summer for vehicular traffic.
“We didn’t have time to get all the pieces in place to figure out how to do that safely and financially sustainably last year,” Armstrong said. “We’ve had a lot more time to think about that going into this year. We don’t know exactly the mechanics of what that looks like, but how people buy their passes is going to look different. They probably won’t be sitting in long lines waiting to go through the fee booth and buy their pass right there.” That could include online sales or an automated permit dispenser at the gate.
Long-term solutions could mean users will see more permit and reservations systems instituted around the state. They are already being used at popular destinations including Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon and the Conundrum Hot Springs in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area. Daily or season passes are required during the winter to use the Vail Pass Recreation Area, which teems with skiers and snowmobilers.
At Brainard Lake, officials are looking at solutions that could include off-site parking with shuttles — similar to the system in place for accessing the Maroon Bells from Aspen — or expanded parking lots.
In the White River National Forest, there is talk of requiring reservations for backcountry camping in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. That’s been in the works for years, and may be brought to the public for comment this year. If approved, it wouldn’t go into effect until next year at the earliest.
“These things take years,” Fitzwiilliams said. “We’ve got the plan, we’ve completed the environmental analysis, and now it’s just a matter of implementation. We thought we were going to do it last year, but with COVID it was just too much.”
Fitzwilliams is concerned about other congested spots, such as the trails and parking lots around Quandary Peak, a fourteener just south of Breckenridge.
“Last summer, some of the videos and pictures, it looked like Broncos stadium — both sides of the road, completely jammed,” Fitzwilliams said.
Another area of concern for Fitzwilliams is East Vail, where trailheads are routinely jammed by day hikers.
After hordes of people hiking in the Ice Lakes area near Silverton last summer overwhelmed parking lots, left behind feces and trash, and damaged historic mining structures, forest service officials there began looking for solutions that could include permits or shuttles from Silverton.
“We will be reaching out to the other national forests that have permit systems in place to find out their lessons learned,” said Jed Botsford, recreation staff officer for the Columbine Ranger District of the San Juan National Forest. “We will work hand in hand with San Juan County and the Town of Silverton, because everything we do up in that area affects them and their economy.”
Public lands managers say they have to look for ways to provide quality outdoor experiences while protecting natural resources and supporting local tourism economies.
“We’re not being ridiculous, thinking everything has to be this pristine, quiet experience of solitude,” Fitwilliams said. “But there is a spectrum we want to keep. It shouldn’t feel like Central Park, either. We’re trying to manage to meet the capacity of the facilities and manage for some semblance of a decent recreation experience. The way you do that is, you do the plans, you do the collaboration and you come up with management scenarios. It can be permits, it can be reservations, it can be fees. There’s a spectrum of tools we have at our disposal that have proven over the years to be effective. We’re woefully behind.”