Too Many People Recreating: What’s a Fair Way to Permit?

Volunteer efforts have tried in recent years to intercept hikers at the Ice Lakes Trailhead to talk about best practices in the backcountry.
Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file
I’ve been thinking about “thought channels” in terms of a floodplain. It seems like for whatever reason, many folks are in channels. But Covid and the Biden Administration provide an opportunity for a dam release, where new ideas can be exposed , and new, possibly better, and less oppositional channels or even thousands of rivulets form. Example: old channel “on federal lands, industries are bad and recreation is good.” New set of rivulets: “on federal lands, some industries (e.g. solar and wind development) are good, and some recreation (overdoing it, not just OHV’s or MBs) is bad. Let’s look closer.

I’ve found it really hard to get out of today’s thought channels, as the folks who have power in the different channels don’t particularly want to be flooded with new ideas and partnerships and thereby lose their power. I don’t think this is conscious, but they are in a channel, like a fishbowl, where that’s the way the world looks. To my mind, we’re all trying to do good, with different ideas of what that looks like.

So thanks to Dana for submitting another story on “overrecreating” in Southern Colorado, written by the Durango Herald. I think it’s a problem in other places (based on an RVCC Zoom call), including people tromping about on private land (!) in the west, but I haven’t been able to find many news stories about it. I was on a Society for Environmental Journalists Zoom call, and only a few of those folks were interested. Others were more interested in potential violence cropping up in the Interior West due to the policies of the Biden Admin and what we might call potential Bundification (these journalists were not residents of the interior west). I continue to be fascinated by what (some) non-residents think is noteworthy about us and what concerns them.
What’s Going On: More Poop

All those hikers and campers take a significant toll on the alpine tundra, an already fragile landscape.

For one, hikers have been constantly going off trail, causing erosion and damage to sensitive vegetation. Campers, too, have been seen frequently having fires above tree line. And both have been known to leave behind trash.

The big issue, said Brent Schoradt, executive director of the San Juan Mountains Association, which works in partnership with the Forest Service, is people failing to pack out human waste and toilet paper.

The Ice Lakes Trail is headed toward a permit system after unprecedented high use in recent years has caused damage to the landscape.
Courtesy of MK Gunn
Over Labor Day weekend, SJMA tallied nearly 2,000 hikers and 215 overnight backpackers, and while people are encouraged to carry out their waste, it’s anyone’s guess who actually followed the rules, Schoradt said.

“In a huge use area like that, even burying your waste is not advised,” he said. “People think hiking is the lowest impact way to be out on the landscape, but with those sheer numbers, you’re still having an impact.”

Role of Social Media:

The Ice Lakes Trail has always been a popular spot for day hikers and backcountry campers, but in recent years, the power of social media has caused visitation to blow up.

Can Volunteers Help?
Shout out to the San Juan Mountains Association!

The effort was replicated again this year, albeit under a tent rather than a tiny home, and has had success in mitigating some of the impacts of having so many visitors in one area.

“We want to kill them with kindness and enhance everyone’s experience,” Schoradt said. “The last thing you want to do is give a sense that it’s a free-for-all.”

But, while the volunteers’ efforts have gone a long way to help curb some of the impacts at the Ice Lakes Trail, Forest Service officials say it’s time to increase management measures, namely, through a permit system.

There was an interesting comment about to the story..

I suggest giving priority to residents in the area and not to out of state or even out of town visitors farther than 100 miles away. Some of us moved here from out of state in order to be close to these areas and it is very unfair not to consider our requests first as property and sales tax payers who support the economy on an ongoing basis

This is definitely an out-of-the-traditional channels topic. Generally, it seems like we think “NFs belong to all Americans so everyone should have an equal chance.” But if it were a Rich Person Owned Resort with thousands of acres around a community, we might expect that the concept of “being a good neighbor” would also be involved. For example, we remember the story about Weyco in SW Oregon, in which individuals in the community were concerned that Weyco was charging for access. Is it basically some kind of property rights question?

There are also concerns regarding social equity- should poor local people get preference over better-off tourists? (Conceivably people from outside Colorado must have some money to get here and spend time). OTOH, dispersed camping costs less and may be more affordable to people coming from out of state? Or we might want to give permits preferentially to those communities who have traditionally not recreated on federal lands. What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Too Many People Recreating: What’s a Fair Way to Permit?”

  1. I have two problems with permit systems: (1) they address a symptom, rather than a cause, and (2) they myopically focus on one location without considering the effects on other areas that will serve as substitutes once the new restrictions are in place. In the case of a suddenly popular hiking trail, I think efforts would be better spent on hardening the trail and building better infrastructure to handle the increased traffic.

    A few years ago I hiked Trolltunga in Norway which is another formerly obscure hiking trail that has become hugely popular with social media. There they had done an excellent job of hardening the trail with boardwalks over muddy areas or, in some areas where bedrock was really close to the surface, simply scraped away the topsoil to form a rock paved trail. They still had work to do in some areas, but you can tell they had made major progress. They did charge for parking in the parking lot at the trailhead, but there was no permit or quota system beyond that.

    It seems to me that charging for parking and using the money to expand and delineate a more sustainable parking area and harden the hiking trail would be a much better way to handle the situation at Ice Lakes than a permit and quota system. Not sure what kind of hardening they’ll be allowed to do there with Ice Lakes soon to be designated as a special management area that’s basically Wilderness except heliskiing is allowed.

    I could see permits for camping being needed at Blue Lakes because there are only a few suitable campsites there and advanced reservations could actually help people since they wouldn’t have to hike all the way there only to find no campsites so they have to improvise in a bad spot. I don’t think permits are necessary for day use. That situation could be better addressed by expanding parking and hardening the trail.

    As for OHV use in the San Juans, I think that situation has been highly exaggerated. To the extent there are people behaving badly, I think a lot of it is caused by ignorant people renting side-by-sides or Jeeps and not knowing the rules for using them. I think some mandatory user education rules for the UTV and Jeep rental companies in the area would do wonders.

    What I really hate is the instinct of land managers to just restrict restrict restrict, shrinking the total number of options available for everyone, which just concentrates use on other unrestricted areas even more. I wish people would actually think big picture rather than myopically focusing on one area and restricted it so that the problem gets pushed somewhere else. Relying solely on closures and restrictions to manage overuse just causes everyone to fight all the harder for a piece of an ever shrinking pie.

  2. Thanks, Patrick. These are all going to be interesting ideas to explore. For example, if you needed to do NEPA to harden trails (I think it might be a CE that needs to be scoped? but not sure), would you have to analyze the cumulative impacts of people going elsewhere versus hardening versus permits? Where will different environmental groups come down on this..? Will there be litigation if there are no permits(FS not living up to protection), or if there are permits (about the way they’re permitted, did they look at other options)?

  3. Partly the FS is to blame. They brought it on themselves by severely limiting what areas are accessible. In my wandering about, off trail, I come across many many fire rings twenty or thirty years old, from back in the day when people could drive out old logging roads and go camping. Closing all those roads off has put great strain on the few areas left.

    Parking is another problem. I started noticing big boulders rolled up along FS roads in places that would be convenient to pull off to park or camp. Once I started noticing I started to see them everywhere. The funniest ones have signs saying no off road vehicle usage, and yet there’s no where one could go being hemmed in by cliffage and extreme deadfall on all sides, but it was a great looking place where people used to camp.

    Commercial concessionaires control campgrounds and deny access to people who simply want to park and go for a hike.

    If some areas are being overused, open up our public lands to the public again. If it’s near impossible to find a very basic campsite in an area we need many more campsites. If places are too crowded and other areas are available, the crowded areas will see people avoiding them. Making it difficult to access our own public lands is the problem, not the solution.


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading