Vail considering next steps to manage impacts from surge in outdoor recreation
‘We can’t just have another summer of status quo’
Increasing numbers of people venturing outdoors during the pandemic took a big toll on Forest Service trails and campgrounds this year. More people meant heavy usage and more problems related to trash, traffic, parking, natural resource damage and illegal campfires.
That was the message this week for the Vail Town Council during an informational update on the Front Country Ranger program, which is now in its second year.
The program has the Forest Service partnering with Eagle County and communities like Vail to get additional people in the field to patrol trails, strengthen public education, stewardship messaging and enforcement and, unfortunately, clean up the messes that are all too frequently left behind on the area’s public lands.
“This past summer was so busy,” Leanne Veldhuis, district ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District of White River National Forest, told the Vail Town Council. “We’re probably anticipating that next summer as well. I think we all realize the public has really discovered outdoor recreation.”
Several popular trails in and around Vail saw significantly higher use this spring and summer. Use of Pitkin Creek Trail and Gore Creek Trail was up 65% and 52%. Use of Booth Creek Trail was up 73%.
The five-person Front Country Ranger crew focused on five priorities this year: Cleaning up trash and abandoned property, preventing illegal access and illegal dispersed camping, enforcing fire restrictions and rules against unattended campfires, and monitoring and cleaning up after a growing number of suspected residential camps in the forest.
The crew extinguished 32 unattended campfires this season — including one found along Red Sandstone Road the day before the Grizzly Creek Fire ignited in Glenwood Canyon. Crew members dismantled 279 makeshift fire rings found at dispersed campsites, and extinguished six campfires found with campers present, resulting in two citations.
Other work completed this season included:
- Kiosk and sign improvements for the Fall Creek and Grouse Creek trailheads;
- The blocking of three illegal roads;
- Fence repairs;
- Removal of an illegal cabin on Red and White Mountain Road;
- Removal of an abandoned camp and 600 pounds of trash off Spraddle Creek Road, in partnership with Vail Stables;
- Removal of about 500 pounds of trash from the Two Elk Target Range;
- Removal of 5,145 pounds of trash and abandoned property including a sailboat, kayaks and tents;
- Pumping of 12 vault toilets on the national forest;
- And the restoration of 39 illegal dispersed campsites to protect water quality and sensitive stream areas.
The crew also focused on cleaning up human and pet waste. It removed more than 40 human waste piles, more than 70 dog waste bags found on trails and at trailheads, and 10 homemade toilets found on the forest.
The presentation left several members of Vail Town Council ready to explore steps for next spring and summer, and briefly discussing various options that ranged from parking closures and stronger enforcement to new reservation or permit systems for the area’s most popular trails.
“I want people to have access to trails, to enjoy our wilderness, to see the beauty we have,” said Councilmember Brian Stockmar, adding that he also wants to see people following Leave no Trace principles to help protect those areas. “The degradation I have seen over the last 20 years is just stunning. It’s painful.”
Heavy usage is impacting trails, wildlife, and natural resources with problems related to trash, campfires, and human and pet waste. It’s also impacting neighborhoods near popular trailheads with parking and traffic.
“We do want a plan for next summer. Something’s got to change. We can’t just have another summer of status quo,” said Councilmember King Langmaid.
Councilmember Jenn Bruno said the Front Country Ranger program now has two successful years under its belt, but added that “there seems to be more of a need than we currently have the capacity for. My takeaway is that we need to do more.”
Mayor Dave Chapin said the Vail Town Council will take the issue up again later this winter. “We’ve got to get our hands around this,” he said.
The town of Vail also coordinated a cleanup in early October, with 47 people volunteering to help pick up trash on area trails.
Veldhuis, who started working for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District in July, said she expects to see a busy winter and another busy spring and summer next year on the national forest.
Hampered by a late start because of the coronavirus pandemic in March and April, which impacted crew training and its enforcement of seasonal trail closures to protect wildlife habitat, the Front Country Ranger Program still got a lot of important work done this season, Veldhuis said.
“With the amount of trash and abandoned property and unattended fires and all the dispersed camping, I couldn’t imagine not having this program,” Veldhuis said.
Heavily-visited areas like the national forest in Eagle County and around Vail will continue to see more people now that the general public has discovered outdoor recreation nationwide, Veldhuis predicted. And that’s expected to prompt many communities to continue to wrestle with ways to better manage public access to public lands, educate people about trail etiquette and reduce impacts.
“This summer I think will kickstart a lot of conversations that were already happening,” Veldhuis said.
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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