In 2016, the Gunnison Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service implemented regulations on dispersed camping throughout the Gothic corridor, north of Crested Butte. However, each year since then, visitor numbers — recorded at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) visitor center — have increased substantially.
“In 2015 — the year before the closure — there were 9,362 people that went through the Visitors Center between June and July,” said RMBL Executive Director Ian Billick. “This year there were 10,629.”
Tourists are seemingly undeterred by the closure to dispersed camping. Currently, camping is closed in the Gothic corridor from June 15 to Aug. 15 annually, under a Forest Supervisor’s Order. The regulations were put in place to counter increased recreation harming some of the valley’s most cherished natural resources.
In 2015, significant damage occurred to the meadows above Gothic — areas frequently utilized by RMBL researchers as test sites. Just a year later, the closure was initiated in response to general concern for natural resources, as well as impact to permitted research activities on Forest Service lands.
“It was determined that camping at the levels and numbers we were seeing was not sustainable, and that the impact from campers on RMBL’s scientific inquiries was not acceptable,” explained Gunnison District Ranger Matt McCombs.
Despite an influx of visitors during the last two years, McCombs believes the regulations have served to protect the Gothic corridor. While foot and motorized traffic can be effectively managed through routine maintenance — so long as visitors stay on the trails — dispersed camping allows campers to choose the location for their site, and often results in disturbance to habitat as existing campsites grow larger with time.
“By minimizing dispersed camping opportunities during the peak season, we’ve minimized the potential for additional resource damage at existing dispersed sites and slowed the growth of new sites,” McCombs said.
The district ranger noted that by reducing the number of overnight visitors, unwanted impacts from campers on RMBL research plots also have decreased.
Yet, the Forest Service still has their hands full trying to manage an overall increase in visitation each year. Throughout the state, Colorado is experiencing growth of both residential and visitor populations — and the Gunnison Valley is no exception. With extraordinary terrain and breathtaking views, the Gunnison-Crested Butte area has long been a popular tourist destination.
“I’d say the growth in visitation is in direct relation to a combination of things,” said McCombs. “A growing state and regional population, and the incredibly unique geography of the Gothic corridor — which includes hallowed mountain biking ground, and some of Crested Butte area’s most spectacular vistas and concentrations of wildflowers.”
While both McCombs and Billick are excited to see people enjoying all that the area has to offer, they urge respect of natural resources year-round. While the closure to dispersed camping is only active during the summer season, McCombs asks campers to be mindful of their experience.
“I would encourage campers to use only existing sites and to minimize new disturbance whenever possible,” he said. “Moreover, RMBL’s research provides an incredible public benefit, and I would ask visitors to respect RMBL’s work and observe their scientific inquiry with their eyes only.”
(Julia Jacobson, special to the Times)