After ski areas were shut down by Governor Jared Polis’ executive order in March, a series of limitations on public land use have come about, both as preventative measures against the spread of COVID-19 and to limit strain on emergency services.
Beginning March 26, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) implemented statewide closures of developed facilities to limit the spread of coronavirus among groups of people who may come into contact at recreation sites.
CPW oversees the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, the only developed area under its administration in Lake County. The closure will not restrict access to the recreation area’s boat ramps or the river itself, Bill Vogrin, public information officer for the southeast region of CPW, said.
Developed campsites and facilities on CPW lands are closed for public use until further notice. While the closure affects facilities, it does not stop the use of trails and public lands in general as all parks administered by CPW are open and available for use.
CPW is still encouraging people to enjoy outdoor recreation while adhering to best practices, including social distancing and not gathering in groups, Vogrin said.
Following the CPW closure of developed sites, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) announced a similar order on April 7 closing developed campsites, facilities and some trailheads in National Forests throughout Colorado.
The order applies to developed campsites, day-use and picnic areas, other built facilities such as toilets and trash receptacles and imposes a burn ban in National Forests statewide.
Similarly, on April 9, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office implemented a stage two burn ban.
According to a press release issued by the sheriff’s office, the ban was put in place to reduce the possibility of wildfire in Lake County during the COVID-19 pandemic, as emergency operations and support networks may be strained and unable to provide assistance in the event of a wildfire.
Signage has been posted at facilities and trailheads throughout Lake County informing would-be users of the closures. Signs also urge people to abide by best practices and use extra caution in their activities, reminding users that emergency resources may be strained or unavailable as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While offices of CPW and USFS are closed and locked to the public, they are still staffed and accepting calls.
And although many of the facilities at public recreation sites are closed down, the backcountry remains open.
The resort closures may have enticed more people to seek out backcountry access, Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), said.
Though it is difficult to accurately track how many people are accessing backcountry areas for recreation, there seems to have been a surge in use following resort closures, Greene noted. He also stated that a correlation between the resort closures, perceived increase in backcountry use and human-involved avalanches is hard to make.
In an April 7 avalanche near Independence Pass, two snowmobilers were riding in the Mountain Boy Gulch area when one rider triggered and was caught in a slide.
The rider caught in the slide was injured, requiring Lake County Search and Rescue to respond and a Flight for Life medical evacuation.
March saw five human-involved avalanches across the state, according to data available on the CAIC website.
Similar to other agencies advising caution and prudence in recreation, Greene urged backcountry travelers to educate themselves on avalanche hazards and rescue techniques, underscoring the need for anyone traveling in the backcountry to carry and be trained in the use of an avalanche probe, transceiver and shovel.