Dispersed Campsite Improvement, Charge and Reservation Pilot Program- South Platte RD

Some campsites are occupied by people who living in the South Platte Ranger District. The Forest Service is testing a new system that converts the 450,000-acre district’s campsites into designated pay campsites that can be reserved. (Courtesy U.S. Forest Service via Colorado Sun)
Perhaps eclipsed by Election Drama and wildfire news, there has been a major Covid-enhanced increase in recreation in the last year, at least on some western National Forests. Here’s an interesting story from the Colorado Sun on how the South Platte Ranger District is responding. The writer, Jason Blevins, interviewed a range of folks and it seemed like everyone agreed that something needed to be done and this approach makes sense.

“We were experiencing high volumes of users camping on every single road across the entire district and it was getting to the point where we were seeing huge resource impacts,” said Banks, mirroring an oft-repeated lament of Forest Service officials charged with protecting lands in other heavily impacted locations.

The South Platte District started testing the concept of pay, reserved diverse campsites eight years ago. This fall Banks’ team identified 340 sites that will be converted, with assigned parking spots, pit toilets and fire rings. That number will likely grow. As many as 94 sites will be managed by a concessionaire, Rocky Mountain Recreation Company.

Campers will have to pay somewhere around $15 a night. The concessionaire will have to direct 19% of gross revenues back into those campsites. The cost of the sites will pay for pumping out and cleaning pit toilets, Banks said.

“We are basically at a point on the South Platte where we can’t continue to do things the same way and expect different results,” Banks said. “We have to try something new.”

Other district rangers are keeping close tabs on the pilot program, especially after the deluge of campers across all of Colorado this summer, Banks said.

The traffic during the pandemic accelerated a trend driven by a new generation of campers looking for a different experience than a traditional campground, he said. These new-school adventurers are OK with fewer amenities in exchange for privacy and a wilder feel. They are buying RVs and camping trailers like crazy to get farther afield and off the beaten track.

“Paying a reduced fee for dispersed designated sites is something that is appealing to them,” Banks said.

Not all the campsites in the district are going to be available for online reservations, leaving options open for Front Rangers who make the late call to jump in the car and camp on Friday or Saturday night. But off-highway-vehicle users who travel from across the country to explore the Rampart Range trails have expressed support for the reservation system that enables them to lock in a spot for their vacation before they arrive.

Banks also has heard from district old timers who used to be able to drive into the district and camp and shoot anywhere they wanted. But times have changed, he said, and “change can be really hard and I’m sensitive to that.” He tells them straight: “Our ability to provide for recreation in a sustained capacity is no longer effective under the current system.”

Jim Peasley has been riding dirt bikes and camping in the Rampart Range for more than 50 years. The longtime liaison officer for the Rampart Range Motorcycle Management Committee has shepherded the construction and maintenance of hundreds of miles of trails in the range’s motorized recreation area, deploying his committee’s volunteers with federal and state support.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes,” he said.

But over the past five to 10 years, the pace of that change has accelerated. In recent years Peasley has seen more people who are transient setting up semi-permanent camps at spots that once were used by weekend campers. The nonprofit committee that formed in 1972 has traditionally resisted the South Platte Ranger District’s push toward more designated, pay campsites.

“But honestly, in the last few years it’s gotten so bad that even our members can’t find a decent place to camp so we finally as a committee decided to get on board,” Peasley said.


Patricia Cameron founded Colorado Blackpackers in 2019 as a way to get more people of color outdoors. Her nonprofit leads camping trips and outdoor excursions as well as offering free and discounted gear.

She says Blackpackers serves those “at the intersection of economic vulnerability and underrepresentation.” And she’s wary of how fees on public lands can become obstacles for people who want to spend more time outside.

“Anytime you put a cost on something, regardless of the amount, you start limiting people and leaving people out,” she said.

But the new reservation system could make camping trips less intimidating for newcomers, she said, eliminating the first-timer angst that comes with trying to find a campsite in a forest filled with more experienced — and largely white — campers. So Cameron hopes the reservation system, even though it costs money, could lower other barriers that can prevent people of color from getting outside and hopefully sparking a passion that could lead to more outdoor experiences.

If folks have questions about this I’m willing to yard them up and ask. Here are mine.
1. Don’t other forests have paid dispersed sites? I’ve seen designated dispersed sites but they are not reserved/paid for.
2. How did they pick 19% as the percent of gross revenues that comes back?
3. Are employees managing the other campsites (340-95) that the concessionaire is not? Do all the revenues from those return directly to the District?

9 thoughts on “Dispersed Campsite Improvement, Charge and Reservation Pilot Program- South Platte RD”

  1. What about Senior Passes, I am seeing this as a way to circumvent free senior pass access to areas.
    This is happening with concessionaires on the Colville NF in Eastern Washington where people who pay for senior passes still have to pay again for access to OUR Federal Lands because of criminal concessionaires lust for money.

  2. I first heard about this plan at a motorized planning meeting this past winter and was very disappointed that this has become necessary. To my knowledge this is the first time at least in Colorado that the Forest Service has implemented paid dispersed campsites, though I have heard that a similar system is being planned for camping around Crested Butte. I question the legality of this plan and whether a metal fire ring is really enough of an amenity for the Forest Service to justify charging for it.

    I also wonder how this will be handled in practice and how the payment system will actually work. Reserved sites make sense since then you pay online ahead of time, but for the walkup sites, given that there is no cell service a lot of places in Rampart Range, I’m not sure how they’ll do payment. Maybe just use the old metal pipe with a cash slot in it? There are still a lot of questions I have about how this will work in practice.

    Finally, I can accept that this system is probably needed in the fairly small part of Rampart Range this covers (just the Rampart Range Recreation area in the South Platte District), which has certainly had a chronic problem with overcrowding. But I hope this type of system does not become the default way for the Forest Service to manage dispersed camping in the future, and I hope it will only be used in a few specific areas with significant overcrowding issues.

    Currently the southern portion of Rampart Range in the Pikes Peak District does not have any restrictions on dispersed camping, and it I hope that stays that way. There are more roads down there (many of them high clearance, which naturally limits the number of people using them) and there’s a lot more room for people to spread out, so it doesn’t currently have the same issue with overcrowding. Though at the same time, the Forest Service is currently considering closing several of the most popular roads for dispersed camping in that area, which will only further concentrate camping on the roads that remain open.

    Where at all possible, I would prefer to see the Forest Service continue to provide the maximum freedom for unrestricted free dispersed camping, and only impose restrictions where absolutely necessary. The more dispersed camping is restricted in some areas, it will just drive people to camp in other areas without restrictions, causing cascading overcrowding there.

  3. It’s word games used to disguise the privatisation of public lands. Many campgrounds and lots of access to National Forest is now managed by concessionaires. You can’t even walk through these places or park to access the land we all own.

    Trying to find a place to camp anywhere along the front range is pretty much impossible, one needs to reserve far in advance. The goal besides making lots of profits for the concessionaires is to drive large groups of users away from using our public lands to recreate on.

    There is no organised opposition to this taking of public lands. Forest Service loves it because it saves them from having to deal with the public at all. Wealthy urban recreationists love it because they have tidy reserved camp spots packed in close to other folks. The people who are screwed are those who want to camp such that they aren’t squeezed in cheek by jowl next to 50 others with picnic tables and fire pits.

    Also screwed are the families who pack the kids and some gear into the car and head for the mountains intending to camp on our public lands. They can’t.

    I could swear we just passed a much lauded bill to finance things like this with $ from offshore oil drilling.

    • Som- we’ve all seen people leaving their RV’s for months occupying sites, and people who leave lots of trash, and so on. What would you do instead of what the South Platte is doing?

      • Can’t they ticket people who stay/ camp more than 14 days? Personally, I can’t stand campgrounds, but appreciate that they are there for those who do. I like to either backpack or to find a spot in the woods, without piped water, toilets, or fire rings when I camp. But maybe it’s getting too crowded to do that anymore.

        • I believe that they do ticket people but I suspect that there isn’t enough workforce and volunteers can’t ticket because it’s law enforcement. Good question, though.

          • I believe that if you have black or brown skin, or even just appear to be a ‘hippie,’ your chances of being ticketed by the U.S. Forest Service for violating the 14-day camping limit goes up dramatically.


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