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?