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Visitation spikes at national forests, and Southwest Colorado is no exception

Higher-than-average use has raised concerns in San Juan Mountains
Nationals forests saw a surge in visitation last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, motivating recreation groups and the U.S. Forest Service to focus on responsible outdoor recreation. (Courtesy of San Juan Mountains Association)

The public escaped to the outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, so much so that the U.S. Forest Service recorded 18 million additional visits in national forests and grasslands last year.

The Forest Service released new survey data in May, which showed 168 million visits to national forests between 2016 and 2020, compared with 150 million from 2015 to 2019. While visitors found opportunities for mental and physical self-care in the outdoors, the increase also caused more wear and tear on landscapes.

“With the significant increase in public land use – there is more of a need for all visitors to take great care in being stewards of the land,” said Esther Godson, Forest Service spokeswoman. “Reminders like, ‘pack it in, pack it out’ and ‘leave no trace’ are building blocks in maintaining our shared national forest values.”

The Rocky Mountain region, which includes Southwest Colorado, reported 32.4 million visits between 2016 and 2020, a 12.5% spike in use compared with 2015-19, according to the National Visitor Use Monitoring Program report.

The San Juan National Forest did not contribute data to the 2020 report. Its visitor use survey results will be included in the 2021 report, Godson said.

Overall, about 95% of recreators nationwide were happy with their experience. Most visitors said they recreate outdoors to improve their physical, psychological and/or spiritual well-being, the national report said.

Visitors also spent about $10 billion in fiscal year 2019 and helped sustain about 154,000 jobs.

The higher-than-average use also raised some concerns locally. In the San Juan Mountains, people drove illegally off-road and damaged the fragile alpine tundra. Visitors disregarded road closures, camped in off-limit areas and left trash and human waste.

“(The survey) helps us really understand the trends we’re seeing in recreation and the dramatic increases in use, like what this report identified,” Godson said. “And importantly how we adapt to those.”

The Forest Service uses the survey data and on-the-ground observations to make decisions about which grants to seek, how to change staffing and which management practices to use.

For example, the Forest Service extended the closure at Ice Lakes to protect public safety as the landscape heals after a 2020 fire. Visitors can help by following fire restrictions – more than 90% of all wildfires on public lands are started by humans, Godson said.

All types of recreators – hikers, hunters, water recreators, off-roaders – are motivated to protect public lands. The Forest Service wants to harness that motivation to spread the word about responsible recreation outdoors, Godson said.

“It’s a great chance to connect to all of our shared values,” said Godson. “We can really focus on awareness programs, how to recreate responsibly.”

The visitation trend appears to be holding true in 2021, she said. Reservation-only campsites are fully booked for the season, which validates on-the-ground reports of high use. More information about visitation in the San Juan Mountains will be available after October, she said.

“What really stood out is that it’s both our local community and our visitors,” Godson said. “Spending time outdoors enhances our days and makes our quality of life better. I think this last year was a testament to that.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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