Dispersed camping at the north end of the Gunnison Valley is no longer sustainable.
That’s according to the U.S. Forest Service. Amid increasing visitation to the area and enforcement challenges, the Forest Service is pursuing a plan to better direct and manage recreation impacts through designated camping in all the major drainages near Crested Butte.
That would mark a major change. Currently, those drainages allow “dispersed” camping — or camping in the national forest outside of a designated campground. Under the envisioned plan, however, camping only would be allowed at designated sites.
“It’s not something we take lightly — especially when talking about restricting access to public lands use and recreation,” said the Forest Service’s Gunnison District Ranger Matt McCombs. “Most Americans take very seriously their right to do so.”
The proposal encompasses all the major corridors in the Crested Butte area — including Gothic, Washington Gulch, Kebler Pass, Brush Creek and Cement Creek. National forest lands in each drainage are now slated for the development of designated camping.
McCombs discussed the management proposal with the Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation (STOR) Committee this past Thursday.
While the number of visitors on public lands are beyond the norm, McCombs said he only expects that number of recreationists on public lands to increase. Developments such as the opening of Cottonwood Pass — connecting Gunnison and Chaffee County — will only add fuel to the fire, he said.
Gunnison City Councilor and STOR Committee member Mallory Logan likened the proposed changes to the shift from dispersed to designated camping at Hartman Rocks Recreation Area which was enacted last year.
Forest Service recreation staff officer Aaron Drendal also voiced his support for moving away from dispersed camping surrounding Crested Butte.
“Right now, enforcement is a nightmare — it’s near impossible,” said Drendal, pointing to different rules that can apply based on where a group chooses to camp for the night. “Our 300-foot rule, our 30-foot rule, 100-foot rule and seasonal restrictions — it’s hard to even explain to interns by halfway through the season what all this means.”
While the assortment of rules offers opportunity for teachable moments, enforcement often falls to the wayside as instruction over what is acceptable remains unclear, Forest Service leaders say.
“The damage that we’re trying to arrest is primarily from vehicles pulling up into virgin meadows,” explained McCombs, who noted the ability to backpack into wilderness areas and camp there will remain unchanged.
Still, some committee members expressed concern over what they call the “displacement effect” — or folks opting to pack into areas for camping rather than stick with the designated camping spots.
McCombs acknowledged the potential for increased visitation to other areas in and outside the county — such as the Cochetopa Hills and Sawtooth areas south of Gunnison — as designated camping is developed near Crested Butte.
A fee structure for designated sites also was discussed as a key component to the proposal.
County Commissioner and STOR Committee member John Messner questioned whether fees could be collected seasonally rather than year-round.
McCombs was open to the potential of a fee structure that adapted to busy and slow seasons — but noted such a decision would be dependent on public feedback.
A fee structure also would need to be commensurate with the services provided, added Drendal. The availability of bathrooms, benches, signage and other amenities would determine what sort of fee is fair.
However, the roll out of a fee structure isn't anticipated to take place until the plan progresses over the next couple of years.
While the Forest Service hopes to get the ball rolling as soon as possible, the timeline for the proposal is dependent on funding, said Drendal.
The STOR Committee threw their support behind the proposal, offering financial support to invest in infrastructure to the tune of $50,000 annually over the course of the next three years to aid in getting infrastructure on the ground. McCombs expressed confidence the Forest Service could match similar finances through grants and agency funds.
McCombs anticipates the process of public engagement for the proposal beginning by the middle of this month.
“I do expect some potential conflicts, but I’m very confident in the message and the proposal that we have,” said McCombs. “It’s the right thing to do.”
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)