COVID-19 lured lots of folks to the White River National Forest this summer
Front Country Rangers patrol for unattended campfires, trash and more and this year's numbers dwarf 2019 figures
EAGLE — During the global COVID-19 pandemic, lots of people discovered expansive outdoor spaces such as the White River National Forest.
Unfortunately, many of them left behind trash, campfires that weren’t extinguished and human waste.
If ever there was a time when the Front Country Ranger Program proved its worth, 2020 was it.
Through the program, Eagle County and various municipal governments pony up funding for additional U.S. Forest Service personnel to patrol the forest. In 2020, the total was $120,000, which paid for a four-person Front County crew and one developed recreation crew member.
During a special presentation this week, Paula Peterson, a recreation staff officer in the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District, shared highlights from the summer season with members of the Eagle County Board of Commissioners. In some cases, the highlights weren’t exactly something to celebrate.
With Stage 1 and Stage 2 fire restrictions in place for much of the summer, fire patrols were a big part of Front Country Ranger duties. Crews posted 40 temporary signs to let people know about the restrictions. Even with the restrictions and the signs, Peterson reported that crews found 32 unattended fires this summer — 26 in the Homestake area and six in the Red Sandstone/Piney area. She noted only three unattended fires were found in 2019.
“These fires were all contained in public created rock rings,” Peterson noted.
She said the current theory is that with so many more people in the forest, there were many first-time campers who didn’t understand the need or the process to completely extinguish a campfire. Creation of new rock rings also was a big issue this summer, Peterson said. So far in 2020, crews have removed 95 public-created rock rings. That compares to 17 removed during there same period last year.
Trash and poop
Camping outside of developed areas isn’t against the rules, Peterson noted. But many of the behaviors that campers exhibit aren’t in the forest’s best interest.
“We don’t want to limit that people can go out and enjoy their public land. We just want them to do it safely,” she said. “It’s important to help people understand how they can work a little harder and be better users of public land.”
The Front Country Ranger crew visited 1,291 dispersed camping sites this summer. That compared to 577 visits in 2019. They handed out 138 education notes, 13 warnings and one citation. They also hauled out 1,850 pounds of garbage. That was up from 351 pounds in 2019.
Human waste management is a growing issue on the forest, Peterson said. This year Front Country Rangers removed five user-made toilets, found 15 improperly disposed human waste piles and found countless “white lilies” buried in sites around the forest.
She noted that rangers handed out 144 haul-out waste bags, primarily along Homestake Road and the Gore Creek Trailhead. “We are trying to educate our campers to go that route,” Peterson said.
Dog poop was also an issue on the forest, with more than 20 dog waste bags collected along trails and at trailheads.
Living at the camp
While the COVID-19 pandemic brought out more recreational users, the pandemic also saw an increase in the number of people retreating to the national forest as a housing solution.
“COVID caused a lot of disruption in our world this year,” Peterson said.
Because of the extraordinary circumstances of 2020, the Front Country Rangers made a practice of tracking suspected resident camps and making sure they were clean. After people had been in a spot for a month, they were instructed to move along.
“We have a fair amount of camps out there in the forest that will have to get out of there pretty soon or they will be there all winter,” Peterson said.
More people in the White River National Forest this year gave birth to a new behavior. People would pay for a site on a Monday and put out a placeholder camp chair, tent or RV on the ground. But they wouldn’t actually camp out until the weekend. This “reservation” practice meant that many campsites that were actually vacant couldn’t be used.
“We are going to have to nip that new behavior,” Peterson said. She noted that next year, a resident host will be stationed in the Yeoman/Fulford areas as part of the solution.
When they weren’t patrolling dispersed camping, checking unattended campfires and packing out trash, Front Country Rangers worked on special projects including:
- Construction of three new sign kiosks and maintenance of 16 existing ones.
- Installation of 43 new informational signs
- Blocking of three illegal roads
- Repair and installation of new rail and split rail fence at Camp Hale and Tigiwon
As she looks ahead to 2021, Peterson expects many of the new first-time users will be back. But with so many COVID-19-inspired unknowns, and with many local jurisdictions facing budget cuts, the Front Country Ranger program may look different next year. In acknowledgement of the situation, Peterson presented budget options would cut costs and cut back patrol frequency.
With the local community still recovering from the Grizzly Creek Fire, Commissioner Matt Scherr noted having 10 times the number of unattended campfires this year was particularly alarming. He noted that with so many more people using the forest, the successful partnership that produced Front Country Rangers is more important than ever.
“This is one of the items, to me, that clearly cannot be reduced,” Scherr said.
“The general public getting out on public lands is an exciting thing,” agreed Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry. “But I am really glad the Front Country Ranger program was in place before this season started.”
Over the next couple of months, as towns and the county hone their respective budgets, the funding issue will be finalized. Peterson said he hopes to begin advertising for 2021 Front Country Rangers in January and February, to have people ready to start work in mid April.
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