Visitors have flocked to public lands in recent years driven by the coronavirus pandemic and growing recreation.
National forest visits increased by more than 20 million between 2016 and 2020. From 2019 to 2020, visitation grew by some 18 million.
In wilderness areas, the explosive growth in recreation has been even more pronounced.
Visits to wilderness areas almost doubled in 2020 after four years of minimal growth.
“Last year, there was a profound increase in visitors over the 2019 season,” said Lorena Williams, a spokeswoman for the San Juan National Forest.
“2020 was our peak year so far and the Rocky Mountain region, which the San Juan is a part of, has seen record numbers of visitors in recent years,” she said.
Williams said that growing trend is likely to continue as awareness surrounding the accessibility and benefits of public lands spreads.
But as visitors pour into public lands, they are also bringing with them new challenges that agencies and land managers must face.
A recent study in the journal Natural Hazards showed the close link between outdoor recreation and wildfire risk.
Land managers across the country have watched trash pile up as recreation has grown.
“A lot our law enforcement officers will find large trash dumps out on public land. It’s become a larger part of their jobs enforcing those (dumping rules),” said Shawn Reinhardt, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management’s Southwest Colorado District office.
The Forest Service removed about 40 abandoned camps across San Juan National Forest’s three districts before Labor Day, Williams said.
Crews picked up 397 contractor-sized trash bags in the Columbine Ranger District alone.
Parking in national forests has also filled up.
Visitors to overflowing lots have increasingly parked their cars on grassy areas and along roads, increasing soil erosion and creating ruts that damage road infrastructure.
“We’re starting to have resource damage from just the large number of folks going up there,” Williams said.
“I don’t want to call it a problem because the increased use is a positive sign that people are enjoying their national forests,” she said. “But that extensive use does create management challenges.”
Among those challenges are the ever-expanding footprints of dispersed camping and the threats of increasing recreation to wildlife.
Anyone can visit a national forest and camp for free outside of a designated campground with dispersed camping.
The activity has grown in popularity in recent years, often limiting the availability of natural campsites alongside the road. As those sites have disappeared, visitors have begun penetrating farther into the forest.
“Folks are starting to create new dispersed camping areas,” Williams said. “They’re pushing farther back, deeper into the forest (and) farther out on the roads. The number of denuded campsites is now increasing.”
As more people camp, hike, bike and fish, they force wildlife out of their habitat.
“Wildlife generally try to avoid people and areas of high human use,” said Jamin Grigg, senior wildlife biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Southwest region. “Wildlife can easily be displaced out of those (recreation) areas and that leads to a loss in their habitat.
“Those wildlife displacements can have population level effects at times,” Grigg added.
Chronic understaffing and underfunding complicate these challenges, especially when visitors violate the rules and regulations designed to protect these public lands and their natural resources.
According to Williams, San Juan National Forest has two law enforcement officers to cover about 1.8 million acres.
The BLM has approximately one law enforcement officer per field office in Colorado, of which there are 10 statewide, Reinhardt said.
Amid these obstacles, public land agencies are learning how to better manage increased traffic while protecting wildlife and natural resources.
Trail and road closures during critical wintering and birthing times can limit the impacts of visitors. Planning development in areas less sensitive to human impact can also steer recreation away from susceptible wildlife, Grigg said.
Trail and road closures serve a second purpose maintaining infrastructure and allowing law enforcement and maintenance staff to focus their efforts, Reinhardt said.
“One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is communication,” he said.
“We really need to be proactive (getting) in touch with folks that are utilizing these public lands and make sure that we’re doing our part to give them the tools they need to care for the land,” he said.
Williams said the Forest Service uses the three E’s to manage visitor use: engineering, education and enforcement.
Law enforcement is a final measure.
Engineering solutions could be anything from a boulder blocking a trail or sensitive area to permits issued to limit traffic.
In recent years, the Forest Service has discussed a potential permit for the Ice Lakes Trail as visitors throng to the area and affect sensitive alpine environments.
Both Williams and Reinhardt said the Forest Service and BLM were discussing permits as possible solutions to some of the problems arising from growing visitation.
Education is arguably the most important, Williams said.
“Education is critical, and we really look to our partners to help us with that,” she said.
San Juan Mountains Association’s new forest ambassador program, which sends paid staff members to trail systems in San Juan National Forest to engage with recreationists, is among those the Forest Service relies on to educate visitors about everything from wildfires to Leave No Trace ethics.
“If (public lands) are in really good shape, if things are really clean, people tend to be less likely to treat it like a trash can,” said David Taft, conservation director for San Juan Mountains Association.
“We’re really trying to fill the gaps,” he said.
Partnerships between public agencies and nonprofits and public agencies themselves have blossomed in recent years, in part because of the rise in visitors.
In 2020, Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order creating the Colorado Outdoor Regional Partnerships Initiative, which brought federal and state agencies and community organizations together to balance recreation and conservation.
While much of the power to enact solutions still lies with public land agencies, nonprofits such as the San Juan Mountains Association offer flexibility and workforce that agencies often lack.
“As a nonprofit and an independent organization, we can respond really quickly to changing conditions on the ground,” Taft said.
“We’re learning a lot and we’re trying hard to understand the nuanced aspects of increased visitation,” Williams said. “These are complex use patterns and responding to them requires a lot of research and discussion and working with our partners to better understand the situation and what we can do about it.”
“The partners that we’ve always valued to help us on the ground are even more critical for education and outreach both in the field and in our communities than they ever were before,” she said.
Public land managers plan to take these lessons and incorporate them into their management strategies, but limitations remain.
There’s only so much agencies inundated by visitors can do.
“It doesn’t necessarily take a scientific study to tell us that visitation is on the rise,” Williams said. “We all can just see it. We experienced it every time we go to the forest.”
“We want people to come to their national forests,” she said. “It’s a good thing that folks want to enjoy their public lands, and we encourage it. We just want to encourage it in a responsible fashion that also protects the resource.”