Trampled wildflowers. eroded trails. Trash littering the forest floor. Piles of (not just dog) poop. These are not the images one conjures when thinking of Colorado’s postcard-perfect landscapes. But according to stewardship organizations and land managers across the state, these unfortunate scenarios are occurring with increasing frequency as our population and tourism numbers rise and as social-media-stoked enthusiasm for the outdoors sends more people traipsing through the Centennial State’s hallowed grounds.
In outdoor-industry parlance, this degradation is commonly referred to as the “loving-it-to-death phenomenon”: too many people in the same area at the same time, sometimes doing things they’re not supposed to be doing. It’s not a new problem—the Appalachian Trail has been witness to an excess of footfalls for years; Yosemite National Park began limiting visitors in 2014; and the U.S. Forest Service implemented a permit system to battle crowds on California’s 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney way back in 1971—but it is a relatively recent development in Colorado. Certainly there are areas of our state that have long endured millions of annual visitors. But Forest Service rangers, national park personnel, and state park operators say that in the past four or five years they have discerned not only an uptick in visitation but also a dramatic surge of disappointing behaviors that are detrimental to our outdoor spaces.
That one-two punch has every outdoor advocacy group and land management agency in Colorado scrambling to keep up and clean up—particularly the Forest Service, which oversees more than 14 million acres. In May, the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region leadership hosted two virtual roundtables with its districts to discuss overuse and abuse issues and potential solutions. “The meetings are an acknowledgement of the challenges we are experiencing in our state,” says Jason Robertson, U.S. Forest Service deputy director of recreation, lands, minerals, and volunteers. “It will be an ongoing conversation.”
The chatter isn’t limited to the Forest Service, though. In 2015, Governor John Hickenlooper charged Luis Benitez, director of the then newly created Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, with elevating the state’s status as an outdoor recreation mecca and keeping the associated dollars—about $28 billion in annual consumer spending and $2 billion in state and local taxes—flowing. Benitez says he, too, is concerned about the recent impacts on Colorado’s wild places and, maybe more critically, the surprising lack of education Coloradans are displaying when it comes to safeguarding them. “We’re never going to put a ‘closed’ sign on Colorado,” Benitez says. “But this is an industry worth billions of dollars, and I think we can—and should—take care of our own backyard.”
Right now, much of the TLC being handed out to Colorado’s public lands comes from volunteers mobilized by nonprofits who partner with land management agencies like the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, and myriad cities’ open space divisions. “With about 30 Colorado organizations engaged in stewardship, we enlist about 100,000 volunteers each year,” says Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado’s Anna Zawisza. “That’s great. Until you realize there are now five million residents in this state. We think every Coloradan should care about stewardship, so clearly we have some work to do.”
In truth, we all have work to do, including those of us at 5280. For more than 24 years, we have pointed our readers in the direction of the most gorgeous hiking trails, the coolest camping spots, and the flowiest singletrack, but we may have been remiss in making certain our audience understands three simple truths. One, nature is astoundingly resilient—but only to a point. Two, there are guidelines for how to lessen your impact and enjoy Colorado’s most magical places responsibly. And three, a much higher percentage of Coloradans are going to have to step up their involvement in protecting and maintaining public lands if we want to continue to use them. Otherwise, the resplendent wilds we all came here—or stayed here—for will continue to wither underfoot.
$887 BILLION: Amount American consumers spend annually on outdoor recreation, including gear, apparel, footwear, equipment, services, airfare, fuel, lodging, lift tickets, guides, lessons, and more, according to a 2017 report from Boulder’s Outdoor Industry Association. That spending supports 7.6 million U.S. jobs and generates $125 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues.
Few of us consciously make the decision to inflict damage as we make camp at our favorite lakeside spot. Still, being careless, unskilled, or uninformed about how your actions impact your surroundings can have disastrous effects. So, please: Don’t be that guy. We explain what not to do below.
1. Bagging one of Colorado’s 54 fourteeners, and at the time, it seems like a great to snap a selfie while holding the cardboard sign you brought with you that reads “14,157 feet!” But then you decide to leave the sign atop the summit “for someone else to use,” which means you just littered on one of the Centennial State’s most precious and beautiful places.
2. Going backpacking with a few friends, and at the time, it seems like a great idea to wear those ratty old tennis shoes instead of your high-ankled, water-resistant hiking boots. But then you encounter deep puddles on the path and decide to step off-trail to avoid getting your feet wet, which means you planted your size 12s on sensitive vegetation and contributed to the widening of the hiking trail for your own comfort.
3. Bringing Fido on a trail run with you in a national forest, and at the time, it seems like a great idea to let him expend additional energy by allowing him ever-so-briefly off-leash, even though it’s illegal. But then you run into a small herd of elk in a meadow, where Fido can’t help trying his best herding-dog impression, which means you and your four-legged buddy may have trespassed on a migration corridor or interrupted a mating session.
4. Legally sport shooting on public land, and at the time, it seems like a great idea to bring in old paint buckets, empty beer cans and a broken toaster oven to use for target practice. But then you don’t pack out the bullet-riddled detritus—mostly because whoever was there before you didn’t take the time to pick up their mess either, which means laziness begets laziness—and the rubbish piles up, leaving what was once a pristine landscape dotted with casings and piles of trash.
5. Dayhiking to an alpine lake, and at the time, it seems like a great idea to follow what looks like a shorter, more direct trail. But then you lose track of the unsigned path and short-cut your way back to the main trail, which means you messed up twice: first, when you took an existing pirate trail, further promoting a bogus path, and again when you short-cut, creating another vegetation-killing pirate trail.
Trouble in Paradise: Hanging Lake
If you put together a list of the most-righteous-view-for-the-least-amount-of-effort destinations, Hanging Lake would be near the top. Which is why this Glenwood Canyon stunner—a travertine-lined shore and dissolved carbonate minerals create its brilliant blue-green hue—has been popular with hikers since the 1910s, when it was purchased by the city of Glenwood Springs. The 1.2-mile-long trek might be steep, but in recent years, the 1,000-foot elevation gain hasn’t deterred many hikers. “In 2013, we saw about 90,000 visitors,” says Eagle–Holy Cross Ranger District’s Aaron Mayville. “In 2016, we saw 150,000. That’s a rapid rise.”
It’s also a logistical nightmare. The 100-slot parking lot wasn’t built for that kind of demand. On summer days, traffic backs up onto the highway, tempers flare between would-be hikers looking for spaces, and illegally parked vehicles cause problems for everyone. “The entire experience is degraded,” Mayville says.
The trail and lake themselves haven’t fared much better under such pressure. The footpath has widened considerably; discarded trash gets stuck in the ground cover; and visitors often disobey signs that implore them not to bring dogs; not to swim in the lake; and to stay off a downed tree that protrudes into the water. In April, vandals desecrated rocks and trees with graffiti. Then, in June, models and a photographer from a Brazilian activewear company were fined for swimming in the lake and climbing on the iconic log.
With the district’s crown jewel under attack, the Forest Service has been working on solutions for nearly three years. The parking area is now being supervised by rangers during peak use. The district is ultimately hoping to set a limit of 615 hikers per day—a 40 percent reduction from current numbers. And there is a proposed plan to implement a shuttle system in summer 2018 that could reduce traffic and parking problems. Here’s hoping these efforts pay off, too.
Boulder’s Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics will help restore 16 endangered “Hot Spots” this year.
If you were given a hypothetical quiz, could you say how long it would take for certain trash items to biodegrade if left in the wilderness? Take, for example, tin cans, disposable diapers, plastic bottles, fishing line, aluminum cans, wool socks, banana peels, glass bottles, and nylon fabric. Then try to match them with approximate time frames: up to two years; one to five years; 30 to 40 years; 50 years; 80 to 100 years; 450 years; 600 years; a million years; and never.*
This exercise is just one of a handful presented to a group of about 30 people—mostly nonprofit volunteers and Forest Service personnel—during a three-hour workshop in Aspen this past June. Led by experts from Boulder’s Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, an organization whose mission is to educate global citizens about lessening their cumulative impact on wildlands, the classroom-based seminar is part of the organization’s 2017 Hot Spot program.
Over the past six years, the Leave No Trace Center has selected 77 recreation areas across the country that have sustained damage from extreme overuse—and vowed to help each community rally around the landscape in an effort to resuscitate it. “We go into an area for a short time frame, usually about a week,” says Ben Lawhon, Leave No Trace Center’s education director, “and we really make a difference. The program is about finding a whole new paradigm for how people visit these places.”
In that classroom this past summer, the Hot Spot program participants who were fervently trying to figure out how long it might take a wool sock to decompose were doing so in an effort to learn how to protect one of Colorado’s most beautiful backcountry destinations: Conundrum Hot Springs, outside of Aspen (see “Trouble In Paradise” at right). Conundrum Hot Springs and Guffey Cove (near Cripple Creek), two of the 16 Hot Spots designated by the Leave No Trace Center in 2017, were the only areas selected in the Centennial State this year. (Ice Lakes Trail near Silverton, 14,060-foot Mt. Bierstadt, and Fourmile Canyon near Salida have been Hot Spots in the past.) It’s not a distinction any Coloradan should be proud of. Both Conundrum Hot Springs and Guffey Cove are suffering from classic overuse—too many people in the same fragile place at the same time, often neglecting to realize the impact their presence and actions have.
Which is where the educational element of the Hot Spot program comes in. Along with a consultation on solutions and program implementation the nonprofit gives to land managers, the Leave No Trace Center’s gurus impart some serious knowledge about mitigating recreational pressures to land stewardship volunteers, key community members, land agency personnel, area residents, and prospective recreationists. They do this through a weeklong series of seminars, workshops, and public outreach events. The result, Lawhon says, is heightened awareness of the issues and a strengthened resolve to remedy them. “These places are not too far gone,” Lawhon says. “We’re putting them on the road to recovery.”
Boulder’s Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics helping restore one of the nation’s “Hot Spots” / Photo by Sarah Boyum
The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics released its 2018 list of Hot Spots in July. Three of the 20 are located in Colorado:
1. The Monarch Crest section of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail in the Gunnison and San Isabel National Forests
2. Blue Lakes Trail in the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness
3. South Colony Lakes and Upper Sand Creek in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness
$13 MILLION: Approximate annual visitors to Colorado’s White River National Forest, the most-visited national forest in the country
GIVING A CRAP
How a trip into the backcountry persuaded me to get my shit together when it comes to going number two. —Sarah Boyum
I’ve logged hundreds of hours and miles in the Colorado backcountry. And I’ve always respected the landscape, trying to, as they say, leave only footprints and take only photographs. But as I listen to the U.S. Forest Service ranger I’m hiking with talk to another group of adventurers about what it looks like to truly leave no trace along the Conundrum Creek Trail near Aspen, I realize I’ve been leaving traces of myself in too-shallow graves all over the state for years: my poop.
The subject of human waste has come up an uncomfortable amount of times on this 8.5-mile trek up to Conundrum Hot Springs with a faction of experts from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics and the Forest Service. But it’s a steaming-hot topic for good reason: We’re on a 30-hour mission to clean up this iconic Colorado destination, which is suffering from overuse—one aspect of which is improperly buried feces.
To be honest, my first thought was I’ll just hold it. But the freeze-dried camp food I’d eaten was going to make that impossible.
Besides being disgusting, waste that hasn’t been entombed the requisite six to eight inches below ground level endangers hikers, animals, and nearby water sources. At Conundrum, however, the problem isn’t just on the surface: With so many visitors, finding a spot to dig a so-called cathole without unearthing a previously laid land mine is becoming difficult. As such, rangers have been pushing for backpackers to…wait for it…pack out their waste. Because I’m part of this disinfecting mission, I’ll be expected to do just that.
To be honest, my first thought was I’ll just hold it. But the freeze-dried camp food I’d eaten was going to make that impossible. Going in a bag and hauling it out sounded like an unnecessary and icky undertaking—until I watched the sun rise from one of Conundrum’s pools. It was magical to see the sun kiss the Elk Mountains and set the valley aglow. This is a place worth giving a crap about, I thought. So when nature called, I summoned my resolve, grabbed the WAG bag I’d picked up (free of charge) at the trailhead, and hid myself in the trees.
WAG is short for “waste alleviation and gelling,” which sounds pretty nasty right out of the gate. But I opened the six-by-eight-inch pouch anyway. First, I pulled out the top of the plastic drawstring interior bag and found a hand wipe and toilet paper inside. Keeping those within reach, I spread the bag wide, crouched, and aimed for the center. Deed done, I jostled the bag to make sure the waste funneled down to the enzyme gel (which allows you to toss the bag into any old dumpster back in civilization); put the wipe and TP in the bag; and pulled the drawstring tight. I compressed the pouch, stuffed it in a trash bag, and tied it to the outside of my backpack. I sighed with, well, relief.
And then I proceeded to laugh at myself. The WAG bag couldn’t have been easier—so easy, in fact, I wondered why I hadn’t been using them all along. Right then and there, I promised Mother Nature I would never befoul her soil again.
Trouble in Paradise: Conundrum Hot Springs
Tucked into the Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness in the White River National Forest, about 8.5 miles from the trailhead off Castle Creek Road near Aspen, a smattering of primitive hot springs burbles from the valley floor. At about 100 degrees, the pools act like a magnet for trail-weary hikers, dirt-covered overn