Outdoor recreation taking a toll
SOUTH COLONY LAKES – Yellow domed tents are staked over flowers
on a flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Other campers set
up a few feet from lakes. Hikers gouge trail ruts up to 3 feet
deep through tundra.
Where bighorn sheep once grazed, a girl walks a dachshund.
This is the heart of America’s newest wilderness, 353 square
miles set aside by Congress just two years ago.
But it isn’t wild anymore.
“”Anybody looking for a wilderness experience should go
someplace else,” federal ranger Cindy Rivera says, shaking her
head beneath the 14,197-foot Crestone Needle.
The problem is you can’t always go someplace else. The woes that
plague the Sangre de Cristos are found across the West. Outdoor
recreation is increasing so fast – nearly twice as fast as
Colorado’s population is growing – that rangers say it now
rivals mining, forest-cutting and cattle grazing when it comes
to changing nature.
“”Soon nobody will be able to get away from anybody,” says
historian William Cronon, a leading scholar on wilderness.
“”That’s essentially where we’re headed.”
And not without fights. Fierce debates are erupting, from the
remote Sangres to greenbelts in cities such as Boulder, over how
to handle the crowds.
Rangers plan what once seemed unthinkable: to limit the
number of people visiting forests and parks.
Leaders of the $10 billion recreation industry and some
environmentalists tout a “”Leave No Trace” approach to camping
and hiking; converts minimize damage by swallowing toothpaste,
straining dishwater, hauling out toilet paper and wearing softer
Others contend that people should come first, that wilderness
is there to be used, not preserved at the expense of those who
want to enjoy it now.
Time’s running out to decide what to do. Population growth
alone poses a problem in Colorado, with a 14 percent increase
since 1990, one of the fastest rates in the nation. And that
doesn’t get at the full extent of urban flight to the mountains.
*Over the same period, national forest use here increased by
27 percent, according to Forest Service records. In Colorado’s
national forests last year, visitor days (one person in a forest
for at least 12 hours) topped 32 million. That’s more than eight
days for every resident of the state, though more and more
visitors come from outside Colorado. The number of people
driving through forests increased by 25 percent. The number of
hikers, river rafters and horseback riders increased by 30
*There’s no precise count of climbers scaling fourteeners –
mountains higher than 14,000 feet. But the number of people
signing registers on summits has increased by as much as 102
percent over the past seven years, a sampling of the registers
shows. *The number of vehicles on roads to mountain recreation
areas grew by up to 39 percent since 1990, state transportation
data show. Some of the biggest increases were along U.S. 285
from Denver to Buena Vista, Interstate 70 to the Continental
Divide, and U.S. 34 to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Why is this happening?
It starts with an American cultural compulsion to escape
other people, says Cronon, a University of Wisconsin professor
and author of “”Nature’s Metropolis.” He argues that Americans
historically have yearned for wild land, starting with
immigrants and Easterners settling frontiers last century, and
continuing with urban elites buying suburban estates and
“”The best thing we could do to protect wilderness would be
to make it easier to live comfortably in cities,” Cronon says.
Here’s the result when city dwellers want out. Every day,
10,000 of them dial 1-800-280-CAMP, hoping to reserve a camping
place for $7.50 – plus a fee of up to $17 a night – in a
national forest. The callers are competing for a few thousand
reservable spaces in 1,300 campgrounds nationwide (377
campgrounds in Colorado, 120 with reservable spaces).
But the telephone operators near Washington, D.C., can handle
only 1,700 calls a day. That means at least eight in 10 callers
hear this: “”All reservation clerks are busy. Please hang up and
call us back later today or on the weekend. Goodbye.”
The agency plans to expand the system; it’s cheaper than
building new campground facilities.
Yet adding reservation clerks doesn’t begin to address the
degrading of wilderness.
Look at the climbers atop Colorado’s highest peaks. Every new
peak bagger deepens ruts in trails snaking up fourteeners, such
as Torrey’s Peak (14,267 feet), about an hour west of Denver.
During one summer period last year, July 21 to Aug. 21, about 60
people a day ascend Torrey’s, more than twice the number who
climbed it during the same period in 1988.
They shout and feed marmots. They often bring barking pet
dogs. Snowmelt and rainwater stream down eroded trails and
shortcuts instead of natural drainage routes that meadows and
forests depend on. A 3-foot-deep gash above South Colony Lakes
is eroding out of control.
“”We need to develop a much deeper sense of stewardship,”
contends Mark Hesse, director of the American Mountain
Foundation, who has launched a campaign to reinforce trails with
rocks to handle more people with less damage. Hesse suggests
restricting climbing in sensitive areas.
Climbers say they want better trails, but not limits. The
17-chapter, 9,000-member Colorado Mountain Club opposes
restricting access to mountains, says Susan Baker, head of the
club’s conservation committee.
“”Our philosophy is still to use the backcountry,” Baker
says. “”Our membership wants to go into the backcountry and
enjoy the backcountry, not be shut out of it.”
It’s not just the mountains. Urban parks also are besieged.
For years, Suzanne Webel, a 45-year-old Boulder geologist,
has relaxed by riding her horse and strolling with her children
and golden retriever along a popular stretch of the South
Boulder Creek Trail, part of Boulder’s 25,000-acre open space
system. The trail follows the creek for a mile along the
southeastern edge of the city, sheltered by willows and
cottonwoods, near fields where migratory songbirds nest.
“”It feels very rural,” says Webel, a member of several
environmental groups, including Greenpeace. “”You can get away
quickly, get away from the city, the hustle and bustle, to
recharge your batteries and enjoy the scenery and the wildlife.”
Last fall Boulder’s open space managers, saying crowds were
driving birds from the creek, tried to close the trail. “”The
more people you have, the wider a trail becomes, and soon that
land is no longer suitable for anything but people walking on
it,” says Delani Wheeler, deputy director of open space.
“”We’re actually using the landscape up.”
Webel launched a protest campaign, circulating petitions and
rallying “”Friends of the South Boulder Creek Trail” at public
hearings. There was enough of an uproar that the Boulder City
Council eventually overruled its open space managers and kept
the trail open for unlimited use.
There are few limits on anybody today.
The only places in Colorado that require permits for camping
are Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks Wilderness
Area. Visitors seldom must wait for permits, unlike river
rafters who wait years to run the Grand Canyon. Nationwide, a
dozen of the 399 wilderness areas have limited access.
That will change, says John Twiss, chief of wilderness for
the U.S. Forest Service, who calls Colorado’s overuse problems
some of the worst in the nation.
Rangers around the state are setting standards, including
limits on the number of visitors, to protect forests from
people. The 1964 Wilderness Act says land for “”use and
enjoyment” can’t be “”impaired.”
“”We know we have areas that are severely degraded,” Twiss
says. “”And that violates the law. We continually push our
people managing wilderness, particularly near urban areas, to
set standards and get them enforced.”
Yet the few limits that exist already annoy recreationists,
including some of the same citizens and outfitters who complain
about crowds on overused land. “”I deal with these people every
day,” says Toni Piaggio, an Indian Peaks ranger. “”I’ve had
people scream and yell and cuss and want to write their
congressman. They’re upset that it’s inconvenient that you have
to get a permit.”
As University of Colorado historian Patty Limerick puts it:
“”America’s been a country where for years nobody has told you
how you can spend your weekend.”
How does a society accustomed to freedom agree on limits?
Science certainly can’t determine limits, says Forest Service
spokesman Lynn Young. “”It’s everybody’s best estimates and a
lot of compromises. There’s no right or wrong. It’s what people
want from the land.”
To get people thinking, the Colorado Outdoor Recreation
Resources Project, including top state and federal land managers
for the region, sponsors meetings over sweet rolls and coffee.
The bureaucrats share concerns about dwindling budgets and
relentlessly increasing crowds in the mountains.
At one recent breakfast in a downtown Denver restaurant, the
group heard from David Secunda of the Outdoor Recreation
Coalition of America, a leading voice of the recreation
industry. The industry has grown from backyard tinkerers during
the early 1980s into a $10 billion behemoth led by companies
such as Recreational Equipment Inc. Counting indirect consumer
spending, such as stopping for groceries before hiking, industry
analysts say recreation pumps $35 billion a year into the
“”We feel that self-regulation is the best regulation,”
Secunda told the land managers, standing by a screen showing
booming sales statistics for everything from sleeping bags to
Secunda acknowledged that overuse threatens the land.
Secunda’s solution: Leave No Trace – behavior that minimizes
damage to nature. On Aug. 17, industry leaders launched a
national campaign at a sporting goods manufacturers convention
in Reno, Nev. All the major federal land agencies represented at
the breakfast are cooperating.
A Boulder-based group called Leave No Trace Inc. plans to
spend $400,000, funded initially by recreation retailers and the
National Outdoor Leadership School, teaching low-impact
This sounds nice, and seasoned mountaineers have been
practicing it for years. But it only forestalls destruction.
“”At some point, you’re going to have too many people,
regardless of the sophistication of Leave No Trace,” says Mark
Udall, director of Colorado Outward Bound.
Outward Bound embodies the conflicts between using nature and
preserving it. The business depends on leading groups big enough
to be profitable, usually a dozen campers at a time, through the
wildest parts of the West. Yet Outward Bound also preaches
respect for nature.
This year in southern Utah’s canyonlands, rangers were
concerned that large groups were damaging fragile desert. They
limited groups to seven people. Outward Bound lobbied against
this, Udall says, but eventually gave in. “”There’s no easy
answer,” Udall says. “”We’ve got to walk our talk.”
At South Colony Lakes, base camp for some of the most
challenging alpine routes in the West, you see all these
conflicts playing out.
“”I don’t think I mess up the wilderness that much,” says
Doug Thompson, a 62-year-old retired corporate planner from New
Hampshire. He stood at the base of a cliff watching fellow
Outward Bound adventurers, who were wearing blindfolds, trying
to climb by feel. To make his point, Thompson ripped a handful
of leaves from a bush. “”My toilet paper.”
Meanwhile, Rivera and her forest service rangers were laying
the groundwork for controlling crowds in the future.
Rivera says 5,000 visitors a year, and 50 a day, is the most
South Colony Lakes can handle without sacrificing land quality
and the sense of solitude. Last year, more than 7,000 people
visited the area, exceeding the limit by 40 percent, with up to
100 visitors a day.
Rivera instructed her rangers to study the situation. One
ranger looked for rare plants – flowers along the road leading
up to the South Colony Lakes as well as the yellow “”Old Man of
the Mountains” and blue “”Sky Pilots” along trails to mountain
Another ranger checking for historical sites found several
pinkish chipped arrow heads. Others measured trail erosion.
Yet another ranger had counted more than 60 campfire rings –
blackened rocks and soil. He calculated the number of people
that the average visitor to South Colony Lakes is likely to
encounter: 30. Forest Service administrators in Washington say
they want crowds in the wilderness controlled by sending people
home if necessary.
For now, Rivera is trying more indirect strategies. Rangers
will set up a parking lot below the lakes with spaces for 50
vehicles. They ruled out closing the road as too extreme, though
the final 3,000 feet will be closed. On Wednesday, rangers
announced regulations limiting hiking groups to 15 people and
requiring campsites to be 300 feet away from lakes and 100 feet
They plan to put up signs encouraging visitors to avoid
fires, keep dogs under control and haul out trash.
Climber Wayne Hood of Wisconsin prefers this gentle approach.
It’s not fair to send people home, especially if they drive from
afar, says Hood. Yet he also complains about “”too many people
Ultimately, Hood says, he’ll have to just go someplace else.
“”That’s what South America is for.”