Colorado Parks & Wildlife District Wildlife Manager Zach Baker shares tips on being “Bear Aware” with participants of a Get Outdoors Leadville! family camping adventure at Mount Elbert. The Leadville and Salida Ranger Districts are currently partnering to address the increasingly high use of vehicle-based dispersed camping sites throughout the districts.

With Lake County’s trails and campgrounds drawing more visitors each year, the Leadville and Salida Ranger Districts are partnering to address vehicle-based dispersed camping throughout the Upper Arkansas River Valley, an activity that has grown in popularity and is stressing natural resources. 

In recent weeks, Leadville District Ranger Pat Mercer presented to the Board of County Commissioners and the Lake County Open Space Initiative (LCOSI) on the district’s plan to address vehicle-based dispersed camping, which refers to camping near a vehicle in undesignated, undeveloped areas, typically along established roadways.

We are recognizing the need to address some of the high use and visitation we have seen,” said Mercer. “And we’re trying to frame that up with sustainability and what that looks like for the Leadville and Salida districts. Right now, the amount of use we have and the ramifications of that use are not sustainable.”

During Mercer’s presentation to LCOSI last week, the ranger said that vehicle-based dispersed camping within his district has increased significantly over the last few years due to a saturation of established campgrounds. Areas with particularly high use include the Halfmoon drainage below the Turquoise Lake dam, around Mount Elbert Forebay and along Clear Creek in southern Lake County. 

Mercer added that the growth in vehicle-based dispersed camping has presented a number of issues and concerns, including vegetation loss, increased pressure on forest resources, unmanaged and littered areas, conflicts among campers, a rise in human-caused wildfire occurrences and instances of tresspassing on lands not open to the public. Mercer also referenced Colorado’s 2019 Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, which highlights an overall decline of land available for recreation. 

“With growth of the population projected over time, there’s just a decline in space,” said Mercer. “If we don’t try to manage that space and those resources, there’s going to continue being a lot of use, and in many cases, overuse. So now is certainly the time, if it wasn’t yesterday, to get a handle of this.”

To address the issue of dispersed camping overuse, the Leadville and Salida Ranger Districts are developing a dispersed camping management project. The project, which does not apply to backcountry dispersed camping, is in an initial phase of information gathering. Mercer said the neighboring ranger districts will distribute a project narrative and survey through ArcGIS StoryMaps, a multimedia company, before the end of the year. 

The survey will offer an explanation and reasons for implementing the project, as well as opportunities for the public to offer feedback. The survey will include an interactive map that members of the public can comment on. Mercer said there are also plans to garner public feedback through more traditional means, such as public meetings and written notices. The district ranger added that public input on the matter is vital and will inform project implementation. 

Although a date for project implementation has not yet been set, Mercer said the solution to dispersed camping overuse could arrive in a number of forms. During last week’s meeting with LCOSI, Mercer introduced a few solutions, including designating dispersed camping sites, developing new established campgrounds, or restricting dispersed camping in certain areas, which is the case in areas near Turquoise Lake and Twin Lakes. 

“This project is not meant to curtail opportunities, per say,” said Mercer. “It’s just meant to provide more sustainable opportunities. It’s really about finding a balance between what is and isn’t sustainable. I stress that a lot. We want to keep opportunities. But we want them to be the best opportunities for the public and the land.”

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