By Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun
Every weekend last year, hundreds of cars spilled from trailheads, lining forest roads for miles. Wait times stretched for hours just to get inside Forest Service welcome centers at Brainard Lake and Mount Evans. Wildfires scorched more than a quarter of the 1.5 million acre Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests.
And still, the easy-to-access forest’s recreation numbers soared 200% last season as Coloradans escaped pandemic restrictions.
“It was an unexpected increase and it was surreal, and it had a huge, huge impact,” Arapaho and Roosevelt spokeswoman Reid Armstrong said.
Land managers across Colorado are going to be better prepared this summer. That means anyone leaving their home for an adventure in the mountains needs to be prepared as well. In the Arapaho and Roosevelt — from the Wyoming border to Clear Creek County’s Mount Evans to Loveland Pass to pretty much all of western Boulder County and Grand County to Kremmling — forest visitors need to do their research before loading up for a camping trip or hike.
Visitors this summer may need reservations — even for hiking — and campers will need food storage containers to keep bears away. Some heavily trafficked overnight hot spots will be converted to day-use only. And fire restrictions could be coming earlier than usual.
“People need to know before they go. You just can’t walk out your house in 2021 and go where you always went like you always have,” Armstrong said. “Do your research. Have a backup plan.”
Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests will require reservations for all visitors to Brainard Lake Recreation Area and Mount Evans, which did not open last season. It’s a crowd controlling strategy already deployed at several popular destinations in Colorado, including Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon, White River National Forest’s Maroon Bells, Pike National Forest’s South Platte Ranger District and Vail Resorts’ ski areas.
Mount Evans and Brainard Lake visitors must purchase timed entry passes via the recreation.gov reservation system. (Brainard Lake passes are typically about $12 and access to Mount Evans is about $10. The reservation fee will add $2 to each pass.) Rocky Mountain National Park tested the timed entry permit reservation system last summer and will use the same system this season
Mount Evans is scheduled to open June 4 and Brainard Lake on June 11. (Details about the required reservations will come later this month. The specifics of the new strategic management initiatives on the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests will come in the next few weeks, but the forest is giving visitors an early heads-up about the pending changes now.)
Also new this summer: All overnight visitors to the forest will be required to use bear-proof food storage containers. Colorado Parks and Wildlife reported 700 human-bear encounters on the Arapaho and Roosevelt forests last year, Armstrong said.
“That included reports of bears stalking campsites and entering empty tents in places where food was not properly stored,” said Armstrong, describing how backpackers will need to suspend food in containers 10 feet off the ground between two trees. “Again, people are going to need to do their research on this.”
Forest Service officials are also working with law enforcement and elected officials in Boulder, Clear Creek, Grand and Jackson counties to convert some popular overnight camping spots to day-use only.
“There are places that were so trampled last year, with vegetation just getting wiped out,” Armstrong said, noting that some of the camping bans will be temporary while some will be permanent. “People were pooping, with no facilities, right next to municipal water supplies. They were building new fire rings. We need time to figure out how to better manage some of these areas as well as letting the ground recover from last year.”
Armstrong, again, was light on details. The forest is not ready to identify specific locations that could be targeted for camping bans, she said. But those locations will likely include western Boulder County forests popular with long-term campers who set up semi-permanent campsites.
The Arapaho Roosevelt National Forests closed dispersed camping sites on Guanella Pass near Mount Bierstadt in 2018, shifting the area to day-use only and the transition has reduced impacts in the alpine region, said Clear Creek County Commissioner Randy Wheelock.
Wheelock, who moved to the county 50 years ago, said he’s been seeing “radical increases” in crowds over the last several years, with thousands of hikers on Mount Bierstadt and Grays and Torreys peaks every summer and fall weekend.
Last summer, Wheelock saw cars parked for 3 miles on the Forest Service road leading to the Grays and Torreys trailhead.
“I think COVID wasn’t just giving us a glimpse of the future,” he said. “It was ushering the future in even sooner.”
And a final step for Arapaho and Roosevelt managers this summer will be a move toward early fire restrictions. Recent rain and snow certainly helped dampen immediate concerns, but local officials remain on edge after last season’s devastating wildfires.
More than a quarter of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests burned last summer in the Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Williams Fork fires. Closures issued last summer during those wildfires remain in effect as Forest Service officials assess damage. Officials suspect many off-road trails and bridges were destroyed in the wildfires, but they are still compiling a tally of the fires’ impacts.
The move to Level 1 fire restriction, which bans flames in anything but permanent fire rings or barbecue grills, came from the top down last year, as the pandemic shutdown strained land management staffing and regional foresters banned fires on public land last spring. Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide fire ban in August as thousands of firefighters battled four major Colorado wildfires.
This year, the Arapaho and Roosevelt managers are working with local sheriffs and giving them more control over when to restrict open fires.
“This year, fire restrictions will be more localized,” Armstrong said.
Land managers across Colorado are bracing for yet another surge in outdoor recreation this summer and fall. Last summer was the busiest ever, and there’s no reason to expect the demand for outdoor recreation will wane this year, Armstrong said, pointing to increasing sales of camping trailers, backcountry gear and bicycles.
“People are investing in outdoor recreation,” she said.
For the last several years, managers of public land in Colorado have been planning for shifts in how they mitigate impacts to natural resources as the state’s population swells. They had strategies that accounted for population growth by 2050, with detailed steps toward protecting Colorado’s landscapes over the coming decades as more people explored outdoors.
Then came COVID-19 and crowds spiked to all-time highs.
“We are looking at these long-term timelines, with population estimates for 2050 and what that will mean for our planning and management,” Armstrong said. “What we were planning for in 30 years seemed to all happen in one year.”
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