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Are We Loving Colorado’s Wild Places to Death?

If Coloradans want to continue to play in unadulterated wildlands, they’re going to have to learn to better care for them. We show you how.

By |

Trampled wildflowers. eroded trails. Trash littering the forest floor. Piles of (not just dog) poop. These are not the images one conjures when thinking of Colorado’s postcard-perfect landscapes. But according to stewardship organizations and land managers across the state, these unfortunate scenarios are occurring with increasing frequency as our population and tourism numbers rise and as social-media-stoked enthusiasm for the outdoors sends more people traipsing through the Centennial State’s hallowed grounds.

In outdoor-industry parlance, this degradation is commonly referred to as the “loving-it-to-death phenomenon”: too many people in the same area at the same time, sometimes doing things they’re not supposed to be doing. It’s not a new problem—the Appalachian Trail has been witness to an excess of footfalls for years; Yosemite National Park began limiting visitors in 2014; and the U.S. Forest Service implemented a permit system to battle crowds on California’s 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney way back in 1971—but it is a relatively recent development in Colorado. Certainly there are areas of our state that have long endured millions of annual visitors. But Forest Service rangers, national park personnel, and state park operators say that in the past four or five years they have discerned not only an uptick in visitation but also a dramatic surge of disappointing behaviors that are detrimental to our outdoor spaces.

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That one-two punch has every outdoor advocacy group and land management agency in Colorado scrambling to keep up and clean up—particularly the Forest Service, which oversees more than 14 million acres. In May, the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region leadership hosted two virtual roundtables with its districts to discuss overuse and abuse issues and potential solutions. “The meetings are an acknowledgement of the challenges we are experiencing in our state,” says Jason Robertson, U.S. Forest Service deputy director of recreation, lands, minerals, and volunteers. “It will be an ongoing conversation.”

Wildflowers
Colorado’s wildflowers are better left in a field than in a “bouquet” quickly abandoned on the trail. / Photo by Sarah Boyum

The chatter isn’t limited to the Forest Service, though. In 2015, Governor John Hickenlooper charged Luis Benitez, director of the then newly created Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, with elevating the state’s status as an outdoor recreation mecca and keeping the associated dollars—about $28 billion in annual consumer spending and $2 billion in state and local taxes—flowing. Benitez says he, too, is concerned about the recent impacts on Colorado’s wild places and, maybe more critically, the surprising lack of education Coloradans are displaying when it comes to safeguarding them. “We’re never going to put a ‘closed’ sign on Colorado,” Benitez says. “But this is an industry worth billions of dollars, and I think we can—and should—take care of our own backyard.”

Right now, much of the TLC being handed out to Colorado’s public lands comes from volunteers mobilized by nonprofits who partner with land management agencies like the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, and myriad cities’ open space divisions. “With about 30 Colorado organizations engaged in stewardship, we enlist about 100,000 volunteers each year,” says Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado’s Anna Zawisza. “That’s great. Until you realize there are now five million residents in this state. We think every Coloradan should care about stewardship, so clearly we have some work to do.”

In truth, we all have work to do, including those of us at 5280. For more than 24 years, we have pointed our readers in the direction of the most gorgeous hiking trails, the coolest camping spots, and the flowiest singletrack, but we may have been remiss in making certain our audience understands three simple truths. One, nature is astoundingly resilient—but only to a point. Two, there are guidelines for how to lessen your impact and enjoy Colorado’s most magical places responsibly. And three, a much higher percentage of Coloradans are going to have to step up their involvement in protecting and maintaining public lands if we want to continue to use them. Otherwise, the resplendent wilds we all came here—or stayed here—for will continue to wither underfoot.


$887 Billion:
Amount American consumers spend annually on outdoor recreation, including gear, apparel, footwear, equipment, services, airfare, fuel, lodging, lift tickets, guides, lessons, and more, according to a 2017 report from Boulder’s Outdoor Industry Association. That spending supports 7.6 million U.S. jobs and generates $125 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues.

Undue Pressure

Few of us consciously make the decision to inflict damage as we make camp at our favorite lakeside spot. Still, being careless, unskilled, or uninformed about how your actions impact your surroundings can have disastrous effects. So, please: Don’t be that guy. We explain what not to do below.

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  1. Bagging one of Colorado’s 54 fourteeners, and at the time, it seems like a great to snap a selfie while holding the cardboard sign you brought with you that reads “14,157 feet!” But then you decide to leave the sign atop the summit “for someone else to use,” which means you just littered on one of the Centennial State’s most precious and beautiful places. 
  2. Going backpacking with a few friends, and at the time, it seems like a great idea to wear those ratty old tennis shoes instead of your high-ankled, water-resistant hiking boots. But then you encounter deep puddles on the path and decide to step off-trail to avoid getting your feet wet, which means you planted your size 12s on sensitive vegetation and contributed to the widening of the hiking trail for your own comfort.
  3. Bringing Fido on a trail run with you in a national forest, and at the time, it seems like a great idea to let him expend additional energy by allowing him ever-so-briefly off-leash, even though it’s illegal. But then you run into a small herd of elk in a meadow, where Fido can’t help trying his best herding-dog impression, which means you and your four-legged buddy may have trespassed on a migration corridor or interrupted a mating session.
  4. Legally sport shooting on public land, and at the time, it seems like a great idea to bring in old paint buckets, empty beer cans and a broken toaster oven to use for target practice. But then you don’t pack out the bullet-riddled detritus—mostly because whoever was there before you didn’t take the time to pick up their mess either, which means laziness begets laziness—and the rubbish piles up, leaving what was once a pristine landscape dotted with casings and piles of trash.
  5. Dayhiking to an alpine lake, and at the time, it seems like a great idea to follow what looks like a shorter, more direct trail. But then you lose track of the unsigned path and short-cut your way back to the main trail, which means you messed up twice: first, when you took an existing pirate trail, further promoting a bogus path, and again when you short-cut, creating another vegetation-killing pirate trail.

Trouble in Paradise: Hanging Lake

If you put together a list of the most-righteous-view-for-the-least-amount-of-effort destinations, Hanging Lake would be near the top. Which is why this Glenwood Canyon stunner—a travertine-lined shore and dissolved carbonate minerals create its brilliant blue-green hue—has been popular with hikers since the 1910s, when it was purchased by the city of Glenwood Springs. The 1.2-mile-long trek might be steep, but in recent years, the 1,000-foot elevation gain hasn’t deterred many hikers. “In 2013, we saw about 90,000 visitors,” says Eagle–Holy Cross Ranger District’s Aaron Mayville. “In 2016, we saw 150,000. That’s a rapid rise.”

It’s also a logistical nightmare. The 100-slot parking lot wasn’t built for that kind of demand. On summer days, traffic backs up onto the highway, tempers flare between would-be hikers looking for spaces, and illegally parked vehicles cause problems for everyone. “The entire experience is degraded,” Mayville says.

alamy stock photo
Photo by Rui Saraiva/Alamy Stock Photo

The trail and lake themselves haven’t fared much better under such pressure. The footpath has widened considerably; discarded trash gets stuck in the ground cover; and visitors often disobey signs that implore them not to bring dogs; not to swim in the lake; and to stay off a downed tree that protrudes into the water. In April, vandals desecrated rocks and trees with graffiti. Then, in June, models and a photographer from a Brazilian activewear company were fined for swimming in the lake and climbing on the iconic log.

With the district’s crown jewel under attack, the Forest Service has been working on solutions for nearly three years. The parking area is now being supervised by rangers during peak use. The district is ultimately hoping to set a limit of 615 hikers per day—a 40 percent reduction from current numbers. And there is a proposed plan to implement a shuttle system in summer 2018 that could reduce traffic and parking problems. Here’s hoping these efforts pay off, too.


Rescue Missions

Boulder’s Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics will help restore 16 endangered “Hot Spots” this year.

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If you were given a hypothetical quiz, could you say how long it would take for certain trash items to biodegrade if left in the wilderness? Take, for example, tin cans, disposable diapers, plastic bottles, fishing line, aluminum cans, wool socks, banana peels, glass bottles, and nylon fabric. Then try to match them with approximate time frames: up to two years; one to five years; 30 to 40 years; 50 years; 80 to 100 years; 450 years; 600 years; a million years; and never. *

This exercise is just one of a handful presented to a group of about 30 people—mostly nonprofit volunteers and Forest Service personnel—during a three-hour workshop in Aspen this past June. Led by experts from Boulder’s Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, an organization whose mission is to educate global citizens about lessening their cumulative impact on wildlands, the classroom-based seminar is part of the organization’s 2017 Hot Spot program.

Over the past six years, the Leave No Trace Center has selected 77 recreation areas across the country that have sustained damage from extreme overuse—and vowed to help each community rally around the landscape in an effort to resuscitate it. “We go into an area for a short time frame, usually about a week,” says Ben Lawhon, Leave No Trace Center’s education director, “and we really make a difference. The program is about finding a whole new paradigm for how people visit these places.”

In that classroom this past summer, the Hot Spot program participants who were fervently trying to figure out how long it might take a wool sock to decompose were doing so in an effort to learn how to protect one of Colorado’s most beautiful backcountry destinations: Conundrum Hot Springs, outside of Aspen (see “Trouble In Paradise” at right). Conundrum Hot Springs and Guffey Cove (near Cripple Creek), two of the 16 Hot Spots designated by the Leave No Trace Center in 2017, were the only areas selected in the Centennial State this year. (Ice Lakes Trail near Silverton, 14,060-foot Mt. Bierstadt, and Fourmile Canyon near Salida have been Hot Spots in the past.) It’s not a distinction any Coloradan should be proud of. Both Conundrum Hot Springs and Guffey Cove are suffering from classic overuse—too many people in the same fragile place at the same time, often neglecting to realize the impact their presence and actions have.

Which is where the educational element of the Hot Spot program comes in. Along with a consultation on solutions and program implementation the nonprofit gives to land managers, the Leave No Trace Center’s gurus impart some serious knowledge about mitigating recreational pressures to land stewardship volunteers, key community members, land agency personnel, area residents, and prospective recreationists. They do this through a weeklong series of seminars, workshops, and public outreach events. The result, Lawhon says, is heightened awareness of the issues and a strengthened resolve to remedy them. “These places are not too far gone,” Lawhon says. “We’re putting them on the road to recovery.”

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Sarah Boyum
Boulder’s Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics helping restore one of the nation’s “Hot Spots” / Photo by Sarah Boyum

* In case you’re wondering, here are the correct answers.

Banana peels:
up to two years
wool socks:
one to five years
nylon fabric:
30 to 40 years
fishing line:
50 years
disposable diapers:
80 to 100 years
plastic bottles:
450 years
aluminum cans:
600 years
tin cans:
1 million years
glass bottles:
never

Help Wanted

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics released its 2018 list of Hot Spots in July. Three of the 20 are located in Colorado:

  1. The Monarch Crest section of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail in the Gunnison and San Isabel National Forests
  2. Blue Lakes Trail in the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness
  3. South Colony Lakes and Upper Sand Creek in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness

$13 Million:
Approximate annual visitors to Colorado’s White River National Forest, the most-visited national forest in the country

Giving A Crap

How a trip into the backcountry persuaded me to get my shit together when it comes to going number two. —Sarah Boyum

I’ve logged hundreds of hours and miles in the Colorado backcountry. And I’ve always respected the landscape, trying to, as they say, leave only footprints and take only photographs. But as I listen to the U.S. Forest Service ranger I’m hiking with talk to another group of adventurers about what it looks like to truly leave no trace along the Conundrum Creek Trail near Aspen, I realize I’ve been leaving traces of myself in too-shallow graves all over the state for years: my poop.

The subject of human waste has come up an uncomfortable amount of times on this 8.5-mile trek up to Conundrum Hot Springs with a faction of experts from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics and the Forest Service. But it’s a steaming-hot topic for good reason: We’re on a 30-hour mission to clean up this iconic Colorado destination, which is suffering from overuse—one aspect of which is improperly buried feces.

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To be honest, my first thought was I’ll just hold it. But the freeze-dried camp food I’d eaten was going to make that impossible.

Besides being disgusting, waste that hasn’t been entombed the requisite six to eight inches below ground level endangers hikers, animals, and nearby water sources. At Conundrum, however, the problem isn’t just on the surface: With so many visitors, finding a spot to dig a so-called cathole without unearthing a previously laid land mine is becoming difficult. As such, rangers have been pushing for backpackers to…wait for it…pack out their waste. Because I’m part of this disinfecting mission, I’ll be expected to do just that.

WAG Bag
WAG (Waste Alleviation and Gelling) Bags / Photo by Sarah Boyum

To be honest, my first thought was I’ll just hold it. But the freeze-dried camp food I’d eaten was going to make that impossible. Going in a bag and hauling it out sounded like an unnecessary and icky undertaking—until I watched the sun rise from one of Conundrum’s pools. It was magical to see the sun kiss the Elk Mountains and set the valley aglow. This is a place worth giving a crap about, I thought. So when nature called, I summoned my resolve, grabbed the WAG bag I’d picked up (free of charge) at the trailhead, and hid myself in the trees.

WAG is short for “waste alleviation and gelling,” which sounds pretty nasty right out of the gate. But I opened the six-by-eight-inch pouch anyway. First, I pulled out the top of the plastic drawstring interior bag and found a hand wipe and toilet paper inside. Keeping those within reach, I spread the bag wide, crouched, and aimed for the center. Deed done, I jostled the bag to make sure the waste funneled down to the enzyme gel (which allows you to toss the bag into any old dumpster back in civilization); put the wipe and TP in the bag; and pulled the drawstring tight. I compressed the pouch, stuffed it in a trash bag, and tied it to the outside of my backpack. I sighed with, well, relief.

And then I proceeded to laugh at myself. The WAG bag couldn’t have been easier—so easy, in fact, I wondered why I hadn’t been using them all along. Right then and there, I promised Mother Nature I would never befoul her soil again. 

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Trouble in Paradise: Conundrum Hot Springs

Tucked into the Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness in the White River National Forest, about 8.5 miles from the trailhead off Castle Creek Road near Aspen, a smattering of primitive hot springs burbles from the valley floor. At about 100 degrees, the pools act like a magnet for trail-weary hikers, dirt-covered overnight campers, and none too few college-age kids looking to take in the spectacular views of the Elk Range while swigging cold Coors Lights sans swimsuits.

In 2006, the springs attracted about 1,400 overnight visitors, most of them in peak summer months. That translated to roughly 16 campers every day from mid-June to mid-September, which even then was borderline overcrowding for the area. “In 2016, Conundrum saw 4,800 overnighters,” says Karen Schroyer, district ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. “That’s a 200 percent increase in 10 years.”

Those numbers aren’t sustainable. And neither are these: In summer 2016, Aspen-Sopris rangers buried 139 piles of human waste found near the springs; dismantled 140 illegal fire rings in the area; witnessed 468 rules violations; and packed out hundreds of pounds of garbage that had simply been left behind.

The district is working on an adaptive management plan that aims to implement a limited-entry overnight permit system by summer 2018 to help it tame the snowballing usage numbers and the associated damage. Other potential future fixes may include requiring visitors to pack out their poop; limiting group sizes; restricting the number of days visitors can stay in the wilderness area; and ordering the use of designated dispersed sites. “The wilderness experience is being diminished in these areas,” Schroyer says. “We feel like some of these fixes will help.”


Like You Were Never There

You don’t have to be a wilderness expert to employ the seven principles of Leave No Trace. You just have to be willing to put in the effort.

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As the Executive Director of Boulder’s Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, Dana Watts has heard every excuse out there for not following Leave No Trace doctrine. She gets it. It can be inconvenient. But Watts also argues there’s a spectrum of Leave No Trace practices, meaning it’s not an all-or-nothing deal. “Leave No Trace comes down to your personal ethic,” she says. “You have to make the decision to be responsible.”

To help you do that, we break down parts of the seven tenets to encourage you to make the best choices for you and the planet.

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
    • Learn the regulations for any area you’ll be visiting before you go.
    • Scout out which campsites are best for your group. Larger groups often have a bigger impact, not only on the environment, but also on the wilderness experience for others. Ask a ranger how you can best select a site for your group. 
    • Schedule your outing to dodge less-than-ideal weather conditions, when snow or muddy trails can increase the likelihood of recreational impact.
    • Plot out your meals to avoid leftovers, which often end up on the ground or in a river, and ditch bulky supermarket-style packaging—which tends to get left behind at campsites— before you leave home.
  2. Respect Wildlife
    • Skip the selfie with an elk; always watch or photograph from a distance.
    • Never feed wildlife. Human food can damage animals’ health and alter their natural behaviors.
    • Store food, trash, and any other smellables (yes, even toothpaste and Chap Stick) by securely hanging them in a bag—bring rope and carabiners—from tree limbs 12 feet off the ground and six feet from the tree’s trunk. Or store smellables in bear-resistant canisters or on-site lockers.
    • Don’t let your pet be a pest. Many national parks and some public lands have strict regulations concerning dogs because of their effects on wildlife. Check websites before you leave so you’ll know if you need a leash or if you need to leave Spot at home.
  3. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
    • Walk single file in the middle of designated trails. Trails get progressively wider when people walk on the margins or detour around perceived obstacles.
    •  If you must go off-trail, have your fellow hikers choose different routes so as not to create a pirate trail, which others might follow. Also: Try to only step on rocks, snow, gravel, and sand (i.e., durable surfaces).
    • Use established campsites, even in the backcountry. Setting up camp in well-worn spots reduces the spread of damage to areas nearby.
  4. Leave What You Find
    • Leave rocks, plants, flowers, antlers, animal bones, fossils, historical artifacts—and anything else you come across—where they are. Give the gift of discovery to those who follow you, and let these objects fulfill their roles in the local ecology.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
    • Make sure you know about any fire restrictions in the area you’ll be visiting before you go.
    • Use a stove when building a fire is inappropriate (e.g., high winds, lack of downed or dead wood, insufficient time to burn all the wood to ash).
    • When conditions are right for a small campfire, use an established fire ring or a fire pan on a durable, unvegetated surface.
    • Use only dead or downed wood about the circumference of your wrist. Don’t snap branches off trees, living or dead. Gather wood en route to your campsite.
    • Never leave a fire unattended. Burn wood to ash, then saturate with water.
    • Do not burn leftover food, food packaging, or garbage, some of which have chemicals in them that can leach into the soil and all of which will likely need to be fished out of the ashes by someone else later.
  6. Dispose of Waste Properly
    • Whatever you pack in, pack it back out.
    • In the backcountry, put solid human waste in “catholes”: six-to-eight-inch-deep holes dug with a trowel at least 200 feet from water, camp, trails, and drainages. Quick tip: 200 feet equals about 70 large adult-size steps.
    • In areas with high use, packing out human waste using a specially designed carrier—commonly called a WAG bag—is an option land managers encourage.
    • Pack out used toilet paper and used feminine hygiene products in a zip-top bag.
    • To wash yourself or your dishes, collect water and then carry it 200 feet from its source. Strain dirty dishwater, collecting food bits to pack out. Scatter strained dishwater. Use hand sanitizers and body wipes that don’t require rinsing—then pack them out.
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
    • Many people camp and hike for the solitude these activities offer. Loud music, hootin’ and hollerin’, generators, barking dogs, and children running about unchecked can detract from others’ experiences.

Earth Savers

Outdoor gear and gadgets that can help you become a Leave No Trace whiz.

Photo by Paul Miller.

Top Row:

Left:
Keeping wildlife wild is an essential part of Leave No Trace. Many areas in Colorado now require bear canisters for backcountry camping. We dig the BearVault BV500 Food Container for its size, durability, and easy-to-see-through plastic. $80; rei.com
Center:
Pair your Merrells with Outdoor Research’s Rocky Mountain High Gaiters to keep your feet fixed on the (muddy) trail. $44; rei.com
Right:
Save a wildflower by pitching your dome on a durable (read: uncomfortable) surface—like sand, gravel, or compacted soil—but still score some zzz’s with Steamboat Springs–based Big Agnes Q-Core Deluxe sleeping pad underneath you. Starting at $130; bigagnes.com

Middle Row:

Left:
In high-use areas, packing out poop—yours and your dog’s—is often the only ecologically sound option. Veteran backpackers rely on Restop RS2 waste bags ($3.40) or Cleanwaste’s Toilet in a Bag Waste Kit (pictured above) ($2.95; rei.com) to make the load a little less loathsome.
Center:
Made in Estes Park, custom-designed John Calden Boots are water-resistant enough that you can walk right through that puddle instead of hopping off-trail to save your socks ($1,300).
Right:
It’s a dirty job, but everyone in the backcountry should be burying their…um…business. To facilitate the digging of catholes, pick up a Deuce of Spades backcountry trowel from Louisville-based TheTentLab. $20; thetentlab.com

Bottom:

Center:
Avoid crushing tender vegetation with a traditional tent by opting instead for the made-in-Evergreen Warbonnet Outdoors Blackbird camping hammock, which hangs between two trees—using tree-safe straps—and exerts almost zero impact on the environment. Starting at $170.

High Stakes

Colorado’s prized fourteeners aren’t getting the upkeep they need to withstand all those footfalls.

Although many of Colorado’s outdoor advocacy organizations dabble in stewardship of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks, preserving these behemoths is the sole mission of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI). As part of that objective, CFI’s goal is to build and maintain sustainable summit routes that mitigate recreational impact on every peak. It’s a job easier said than done, but in August CFI released new data that are helping the organization explain the need to invest in our highest hills, which have an estimated $84.3 million annual statewide economic impact. CFI’s second-ever hiking chart includes total usage numbers—about 311,000 hikers in 2016—as well as a per-peak breakdown. Combined with CFI’s 2016 report card, which graded the conditions of 42 existing summit routes on 39 of the fourteeners and detailed how much cash would be needed to bring the trails to “ideal” status, the recently released information only reinforces the idea that our mountains need help. “If a trail is not built for the use it’s getting,” says Lloyd Athearn, CFI’s executive director, “then there are problems and damage. But you can have high use if you have a good trail, which we know how to build if we have the funds.” Using CFI’s data, the above graphic illustrates the disposition of some of the state’s most-climbed fourteeners.

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To volunteer for trail projects or to donate to CFI, visit 14ers.org.


$24 Million:
Estimated cost to bring all planned (purpose-fully constructed) and unplanned (pirate trails) summit routes on 39 of the state’s 54 fourteeners to ideal conditions

Trouble in Paradise: Mt. Bierstadt

“Listen, we need an interstate on Bierstadt,” says Colorado Fourteeners Initiative’s Lloyd Athearn. He’s only half joking. In August, CFI released its updated estimates for hiking use on the state’s 14,000-foot peaks, and the stats were particularly unkind to the 14,060-foot mountain that stands resolute over Guanella Pass Scenic & Historic Byway. During the 2016 hiking season—usually late June through early September—upward of 25,000 people ascended at least part of the peak. That’s a steady stream of footfalls, the cumulative impact from which is concerning. “Bierstadt is a perfect storm of both nature- and human-caused problems,” Athearn says.

The long-brewing squall has been whipped up in recent years by the mountain’s close proximity to the booming metro area; the now fully paved road that delivers peak baggers to the trailhead; the relative ease of the 7.3-mile round-trip climb; and the lack of naturally occurring materials available to corral hikers onto a designated trail. The peak’s location in the Mount Evans Wilderness means CFI—and any other stewardship group looking to help make Bierstadt great again—cannot legally bring in building materials to, say, line a path with rocks or shore up erosion with railroad ties. That scarcity of infrastructure means hikers are running riot on Mt. Bierstadt. “The trail on Bierstadt was originally four feet wide,” says Brian Banks, district ranger for the South Platte Ranger District. “Now, it’s 30 feet wide in many places.”

That’s distressing news for fans of alpine plants—which are being trampled by the unherded masses—but it’s also a bummer for solitude seekers. With as many as 800 people hiking skyward on summer Saturdays, Mt. Bierstadt certainly doesn’t proffer a Walden-like immersion in nature. And it likely won’t anytime soon. CFI’s Athearn says if any of the fourteeners were going to be permitted, it would be Bierstadt; however, currently there are no plans to implement such a system.

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Mt. Bierstadt
Photo by Steve Kroll Mountain Climbing Images / Alamy Stock Photos

#FINDITYOURSELF

Why I decided Instagram doesn’t need to know where my pictures were taken —Eric Schuette

A couple of years ago, a local photographer I greatly respect named Erik Stensland told his not insignificant Facebook audience he would no longer post the locations of photographs taken off of official trails because of damage noted at several locations he had revealed in Rocky Mountain National Park. Conversely, I recently attended a screening of a documentary by Chris Burkard—a California travel photographer with an Instagram following well north of two million—who told the audience he posted locations in his photos specifically so others could go there, feel a connection with that place, and then, hopefully, work to conserve it.

As an outdoor photographer myself, I’ve been intrigued by these contrasting views and have begun to formulate my own opinions—opinions informed by what I’ve been seeing in Colorado’s backcountry. In recent years, I’ve seen trailheads that used to have ample parking even on weekends now overflowing on weekdays. Camping spots are filling up months ahead of time. I’ve also witnessed an increase in trampled plants; worsening braiding of trails; a proliferation of pirate paths; and an escalation in the amount of litter almost everywhere.

Photo by Eric Scheutte

Are Facebook and Instagram posts really to blame? Maybe. After all, social media has given people a window into—and GPS coordinates to find—places that only a few years ago were essentially unknown. Of course, it’s not an entirely bad thing if social media is pushing us off the couch and into the outdoors. But as a person who wields both a Sony a7R II and a smartphone—and therefore a shocking amount of power—I want to protect the land I see through my viewfinder. On social media, I’m often asked where a photo was taken. Keeping in mind the real-life implications for Colorado’s delicate ecosystems, responding to those questions has become difficult for me

The photographic community is divided on this point. Most outdoor photographers I’ve spoken with at least recognize the growing concerns of overuse to locations they shoot and make available to the masses. However, responding to requests for location information is tricky, especially when you consider photographers are running small businesses. Social media is, for better or worse, a killer marketing tool.

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I can empathize. Nevertheless, I no longer disclose on social media the locations of sites that are off-trail, particularly susceptible to damage, or experiencing overuse. In the end, it wasn’t a difficult decision. First, I believe much of the satisfaction of being in those extraordinary settings comes from putting the time into finding them myself. And second, the signs of degradation are simply too strong for me to ignore. If I had to guess, I’d say others are noticing the harbingers of an overburdened environment, too. So whether you brandish a big lens or an iPhone or gravitate toward Facebook or Instagram, it’s worth asking yourselves the same question I asked myself: Is geotagging a picture of a sensitive environment worth the risk?


INSTA-SHAMING:

A Colorado social media account snarkily reproaches those caught defiling nature.

If the reach of social media is even a partial cause for the increasing numbers of people seeking out the grandeur of nature, then the anonymous brain behind @trailtrashco hopes to use the same powers of influence to protect it. Although the Instagram account is relatively new (only 77 posts at press time), @trailtrashco’s unabashed glee in re-gramming, calling out by handle, and mocking rule breakers, sign ignorers, and idiots with spray paint has already garnered more than 11,600 followers.


Sweat Equity

Only about two percent of Coloradans sign up each year to work on land stewardship projects. With less and less government funding available for new infrastructure and maintenance, the onus is on Centennial Staters to take care of public lands. These groups make it easy to get involved.

Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado
Courtesy of Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado

Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado

Known For:
Being the granddaddy of land stewardship organizations in Colorado; mobilizing more than 4,500 volunteers a season; being responsible for maintaining 23 miles of trails annually
Geographic Focus:
Statewide
If You Participate, You Might:
Remove invasive weeds in the James Peak Wilderness; restore crumbling sections of the Herman Gulch Trail
Recent Project:
Built a new trail on Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in the state

Colorado Youth Corps Association

Known For:
Working with the nine accredited youth corps in the state, which serve 1,600 young people annually; assisting the youth corps in their missions to collaborate with local, state, private, and federal agencies on land stewardship projects; helping corps engage with 16- to 25-year-olds by training them for, compensating them for, and energizing them about stewardship of the environment
Geographic Focus:
Statewide
If You Participate, You Might:
Construct high-elevation trail; preserve historic structures on public land; go on multiday rafting trips to remove invasive species from surrounding areas
Recent Project:
Implemented erosion control measures and conducted trail maintenance on the Upper Cheesman Canyon Trail around Cheesman Reservoir

Wildland Restoration Volunteers

Known For:
Ecological restoration expertise
Geographic Focus:
Northern Front Range and southern Wyoming
If You Participate, You Might:
Spread seeds; plant native vegetation; install irrigation systems; close off areas to help plants flourish
Recent Project:
Repaired shoreline at Echo Lake and planted small alpine vegetation to restore the damaged tundra at Summit Lake near Mt. Evans

Colorado Mountain Club

Known For:
Providing training for responsible backcountry recreation and survival; publishing outdoor recreation guidebooks; offering guided adventure travel trips; organizing about a dozen volunteer-driven stewardship events each summer
Geographic Focus:
Statewide
If You Participate, You Might:
Clear downed trees in the Raggeds Wilderness; build new trail near Buena Vista; maintain trails in the Flat Tops Wilderness
Recent Project:
Restored the Burn Canyon Trail on BLM land near Norwood

Rocky Mountain Field Institute

Known For:
High-quality trail building and restoration work; citizen science programs that monitor restoration efforts; research into how recreation impacts ecosystems
Geographic Focus:
Southern Colorado
If You Participate, You Might:
Restore trail at the Garden of the Gods; plant willows to help revegetate the Waldo Canyon burn area
Recent Project:
Mitigated erosion, installed rocks, and narrowed the trail corridor on a summit route on Pikes Peak

Trouble in Paradise: Blue Lakes Trail

At first glance, the cyan waters of Lower Blue Lake look clean enough to drink—until you see the dish soap bubbles. The surrounding natural gorgeousness would make anyone believe the Blue Lakes area of the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness is a pristine landscape, so the suds are incongruous. Unfortunately, the lather in the lake isn’t the only disappointing sight Tamera Randall-Parker, district ranger for the Ouray Ranger District, has witnessed along this trail in the San Juan Mountains.

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Blue Lakes Trail
Photo by Grant Ordelheide

“These alpine lakes,” says Randall-Parker, referring to the three bodies of water found along the 8.6-mile out-and-back trail, “are just breathtaking. I understand why the public wants to see them.” But adoring recreationists have begun to overwhelm the setting. Blue Lakes Trail withstands the pressure of about 35,000 annual hikers, 70 percent of whom choose to make the trek in July and August. Beyond the loss of vegetation from dispersed camping and boots pounding the ground, rangers are most concerned about three things: a parking lot built for 20 cars that often exceeds 200; the 30 fire rings rangers are having to decommission each week in an area where campfires are prohibited; and sanitation issues both at the trailhead and along the trail. Elevations ranging from 9,350 to 11,720 make managing trailhead toilets difficult and providing facilities along the trail impossible. “We’re picking up 50 piles of human waste each week, and we’re finding used toilet paper in what would otherwise be beautiful fields of wildflowers.”

To combat the bubbles, the illicit fires, and the, well, crap, the district posted a ranger on the trail this past summer. “In the past few years we have put new regulations in place—no fires, no camping within 100 feet of the lakes—but enforcement was lacking,” Randall-Parker says. “We wanted someone up there to talk with people and educate them.”


The Recreation Equation

We asked Luis Benitez, the director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, about the future of Colorado’s outdoor infrastructure.

Luis Benitez
Luis Benitez / Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen

5280:
You’ve talked a lot about keeping the outdoor industry strong not only in Colorado but nationally—how’s that going?
Luis Benitez:
Well, there are still only three people like me in the country—only Utah, Washington state, and Colorado have state-level offices dedicated to the outdoor recreation industry. Montana, North Carolina, and Wyoming have announced forthcoming offices; Oregon, California, and Michigan are all looking into it. When these roles are created to oversee the segment of a state’s economy that’s based in the outdoor industry, which is attached to public lands, then we’ll begin to have more director-level representation—more of a coalition—when we talk policy and discuss how to drive the national economy.
5280:
What kinds of discussions should be happening to promote the industry?
Luis Benitez:
Starting to be counted as a segment of the GDP [former President Barack Obama signed the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act of 2016 in December] and no longer being looked at as a feel-good, hug-a-tree industry is a big deal. Once those national numbers come back [sometime in 2018], we’re going to be talking about jobs and revenues in a segment of the economy that could be bigger than pharmaceuticals and the auto industry combined. If the Forest Service and BLM can’t take care of our public lands with the funding they’re getting, and we really are a multi-multi-hundreds-of-billions-of-dollars sector, then it’ll be our job to drive the conversation about how those public lands are maintained because that’s where recreationists are playing.
5280:
You’ve said the outdoor industry needs unimpacted natural resources to flourish. How do we conserve Colorado’s landscape so we can continue to use it?
Luis Benitez:
The pay-to-play paradigm has been taboo. People say, “My taxes pay for this land,” or “My family fought and died for this land.” Those are valid things; however, right now we’re expecting nonprofits to take care of the infrastructure that drives this gigantic economy [in an era of dwindling local, state, and federal funding]. As a community and an industry, we’re telling nonprofits and volunteers that we expect them to take care of these resources and to take care of it by themselves. Shame on us for having that expectation. We have to start having different conversations. The pay-to-play construct my office has been working on, in concert with representatives from all modalities of recreation, is really being led by the motorized community, which already pays to play (like hunters and fishermen do). The process and technology that spits out a motorized sticker or a fishing license is already there. That money goes back to the state for infrastructure and conservation. That’s the easy part. The cultural integration—making Coloradans understand why they should be happy to pay $10 for, say, an annual hiking sticker—is going to be the journey.

HB 1321:
Otherwise known as the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Financial Sustainability Bill, HB 1321 was introduced during the 2017 legislative session. It asked the Legislature to allow CPW to address current financial challenges—specifically, a $14 million annual shortfall for wildlife and a $14 million annual deficit for parks just to maintain current operations. The bill would have authorized the agency, which receives very little taxpayer money, to make price adjustments on certain fees. But it died in committee in May. The bill’s proponents say fees have not kept pace with operational costs, inflation, and increased usage. Hunting and fishing license fees, for example, haven’t been adjusted in 12 years. Park entrance fees haven’t changed since 2010. “Over the next few months,” says CPW’s Lauren Truitt, “we’ll have to decide what programs may need to be reduced or eliminated to make up for the lack of money.”

Balancing Act

Finding the sweet spot between conservation and recreation has never been easy.

The ugly confrontations between campers over sites were the real breaking point. But the damage to Ruby-Horsethief Canyon’s riparian ecosystem was an equally disturbing factor that ultimately led the Bureau of Land Management to implement a permit system on a 25-mile section of the Colorado River in 2013. The limited access, not to mention the new fees, did not sit well with Western Slopers who had long thought of the meandering flatwater and unregulated riverside campsites as their personal playground. “I don’t have a problem with permits per se,” says Kitty Benzar, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition (WSNFC), an organization dedicated to ensuring Americans have basic access to public lands without having to pay fees. “But the permits should be free.”

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Although permitting at Ruby-Horsethief has undoubtedly curbed aggressive behaviors between users, it’s not yet clear how much improvement has occurred along the environmentally sensitive corridor. Even with 100 percent of the money from the permits reportedly going back into the public lands for campsite upkeep and planting native species, illegal campfires, human and dog waste, trampled vegetation, and invasive plant species are still a problem in the post-permit era.

iStock
iStock

It is this type of scenario that concerns Benzar and like-minded folks who believe land managers often flout the rules and regulations outlined in the 2004 Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA). “The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management always have the same knee-jerk reaction,” she says. “It’s always, ‘Let’s charge for this, and that will limit the people and the damage.’ There’s very little evidence it does either.” It’s the contention of the WSNFC that FLREA clearly defines when land managers can—and can’t—charge fees. The law, for example, says the BLM and the Forest Service cannot legally charge fees for undesignated parking; for passing through federal lands without using facilities; for stopping at scenic overlooks; or for dispersed camping that does not have a minimum amount of facilities, among other things. “But they’re doing all of these things anyway,” Benzar says, adding that the fees for dispersed camping along Ruby-Horsethief are a perfect example. “And they’re getting sued again and again. In fact, we supported a successful lawsuit against the Forest Service over fees at Mt. Evans nine years ago.”

The fight between conservation and recreation continues today—and will likely get more contentious as Colorado’s population and tourism numbers soar and land managers attempt to conserve natural resources. There’s no easy solution, and the Forest Service says FLREA absolutely informs how it manages its lands. “The Forest Service uses recreation fees authorized by FLREA,” says Lawrence Lujan, regional press officer for the Forest Service, “in combination with appropriated funds, dedicated volunteers, concessionaires, and partnerships with many outstanding organizations to provide sustainable recreation opportunities to the public.” However, some folks, like Aspen resident Thomas Alpern, think the Forest Service oversteps its authority. Alpern brought suit in January against the Forest Service for charging for access to the Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness. Because the authority to charge fees, outlined by FLREA, hinges on whether recreationists are using facilities like toilets and picnic tables and visitor centers, Benzar asserts that many land managers simply install those amenities so they can charge fees. Says Benzar, “John Muir would be rolling over in his grave.”


Trouble in Paradise: Rocky Mountain National Park

The press release dated July 27, 2016, and entitled “Please Help Your Friends Behave Better To Protect Rocky Mountain National Park” would have been funny if it weren’t so sad. Written to the universal “you,” the two-page communique, penned by the park’s longtime public affairs officer Kyle Patterson, implored hypothetical park visitors not to let their companions behave badly inside the 265,795-acre park. “We’ve had a 32 percent increase in visitation over the past two years,” Patterson says. “There’s always been a percentage of the total who don’t know how to act, but if you’re taking the same percentage of a much larger number, that’s more irresponsible people.”

The release candidly laid out some of the things you, being a thoughtful parkgoer, shouldn’t let your friends do. Like creating parking spaces where there are none. Like taking a bathroom break on the trail and leaving solid evidence behind. Like creeping too close to bobcats, bears, and coyotes for the sake of a selfie. Like taking dogs on trails, which is prohibited. Like feeling free to bring home souvenirs such as rocks, antlers, and wildflowers. Like having a campfire where you’re not supposed to.

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Amazingly, this was not a comprehensive list. Visitors also frequently willfully ignore blatant signage. “Off of Trail Ridge Road, the social trailing has become significant,” Patterson says. “We have signs everywhere that say ‘Stay on the paved trail,’ but visitors go off-trail anyway.”

The end result of all this disobedience could be adding further limitations on visitation to what was the country’s fourth-most-visited national park in 2016. “If you can’t put up signs every three feet to deter behavior,” Patterson says, “then a point may come when we have to limit visitors.” 

Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park / Photo by Sarah Boyum

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