Getting a handle on runaway recreation? ~ THE LAND DESK

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Grant will go toward education, enforcement, monitoring in San Juan Mountains 

Jonathan P. ThompsonMar 22
The Grenadier Range, where once one could spend weeks without seeing hardly a soul. Not any more. Digital painting by Jonathan P. Thompson. 

The News: San Juan County, Colorado, was awarded a $260,200 grant from Great Outdoors Colorado to fund the San Juan Stewardship Project, a collaborative effort to mitigate backcountry-recreation impacts via education, monitoring, and enforcement. 

The Context: Public lands in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado have been under increasing pressure from backcountry recreational use of all modes, from skiers to hikers to off-highway vehicle users. Then came the coronavirus and the use—and resulting damage—exploded, perhaps because of pent-up demand, because people wanted to get out in nature and socially distance (which is getting harder to do), or because other options for entertainment were limited. 

Ice Lakes Basin, near the mining-turned-tourist town of Silverton, has become the poster child for the escalation in use and impacts. The alpine cirque has long been a popular destination for its relative accessibility and stunning beauty. Ice Lake’s aquamarine water, reflecting surrounding thirteeners, is like a gemstone embedded in emerald-hued, wildflower-smattered tundra, making it especially infectious on social media, thereby luring more visitors with their cameras, resulting in more Instagram posts and therefore more visitors. 

A social media search of #icelakesbasin turns up a blizzard of eye-candy that includes marriage proposals, oodles of form-fitting yoga garb, champagne flutes, wedding dresses, meaningful gazes into the distance, and even a slice of pizza—all set against the Ice Lake backdrop. Based on my unscientific analysis of the images, the best way to up Ice Lakes-post likes is to: actually ice skate on Ice Lake; send your unsuspecting dog out onto the ice, instead, and take a picture of him; or, for maximum popularity, take off your pants (and name your account “travelerhotties,” and no, I’m not linking to that one).

Prior to 2020, this unintentional yet effective marketing campaign drew a solitude-smashing 200 people per day—or about one-third of nearby Silverton’s winter population—to the seven-mile round-trip hike, according to U.S. Forest Service estimates. Now up that to 500 per day, the average for 2020, and you can count on a constant trail traffic jam, campsite sprawl, a June-to-October parking nightmare, and an icky human waste problem. Over Labor Day weekend, alone, 2,000 people made the trek.

The Ice Lakes area has long drawn recreational users. This passage is from a 1919 edition of the Silverton Standard, and most likely refers to the falls on South Mineral Creek near the Ice Lakes trailhead. 

While Ice Lakes hikers collectively are the most visible manifestation of this phenomenon, by no means are they the only one. Traffic on the Alpine Loop, a network of high-mountain roads through the San Juans, has increased exponentially over the last couple of decades. A 2019 traffic count found that nearly 159,000 vehicles, about half of which were OHVs (most of which were UTVs/side-by-sides), entered the Alpine Loop, amounting to a 41% increase since 2015, and a 250% increase since 1997. 

Backcountry skier numbers also have climbed steadily in the San Juans and, based on avalanche-accident statistics, spiked in the wake of the coronavirus. Numbers from Strava, the fitness app, suggest the same is true for other sports, including trail-running (1,100 “attempts” on the Ice Lake Trail segment) and mountain biking, which is encroaching ever more deeply into the Silverton-area backcountry and onto trails deemed unridable just a decade ago (at least by me).

The increase in motorized traffic has obvious environmental impacts, including the incessant noise—it’s difficult to find peace and quiet even far from roads in San Juan County these days—more dust (the roads are all dirt), and tailpipe emissions. But human-powered recreation is not exactly impact-free, either. 

A growing body of research has found that even quiet recreation can have a significant effect on wildlife. Colorado State University scientists found in 2003 that a single hiker or biker on a trail will disturb wildlife within a 100-meter radius. Other studies show that backcountry skiers are more likely than snowmobilers to affect wildlife behavior. The alpine tundra is fragile and easily damaged by hordes of humans, whether on foot, two wheels, or four. Littering—particularly of toilet paper—is common in recreation-heavy areas and the buildup of human waste can contaminate the water. 

Industrial-scale recreation takes a social toll as well. As the numbers go up, so do the chances that something will go wrong, requiring a response by the already spread-thin local emergency services, which are staffed mostly by volunteers or part-timers. People fall, become dehydrated, drive their vehicles over the tundra and into wetlands, crash their OHVs, come down with altitude sickness, get buried by avalanches. Last October someone, probably a hiker, sparked a fire that burned 500 acres of forest along the Ice Lakes trail and forced a helicopter-evacuation of two dozen hikers. Thus far this winter, avalanches have killed five people in San Juan County, alone, necessitating extensive and hazardous body-recovery operations. During a raging pandemic, this becomes all the more taxing.

Last spring San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad told non-resident recreational users to refrain from entering the county to ski or snowshoe or ice-climb. The local emergency services simply could not afford to be called out on search and rescue missions during those perilous times and be exposed to someone with the novel coronavirus. That’s exactly what happened in neighboring San Miguel County when Telluride Ski Resort shut down due to the pandemic: Skiers flocked to the backcountry, instead, got hurt or buried by avalanches, and rescuers without protective gear had to come in close contact with the victims. 

To begin tackling the problem at Ice Lakes, specifically, the Forest Service plans to implement a permit system, the structure of which has yet to be determined (the trail is closed until at least July 31 thanks to the October fire). Meanwhile, a collaborative effort between San Juan County, the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department, Mountain Studies InstituteSan Juan Mountains Association, and Silverton Chamber of Commerce, will approach the issue more broadly with the help of the aforementioned grant.

The funds will go toward increasing the number and presence of alpine rangers to educate folks and keep them in line, education base camps and forest ambassadors to dispense information on backcountry ethics, a wildfire safety education plan, and a citizen science water quality monitoring program that will look specifically for e. coli in recreation-heavy watersheds. 

Outdoor recreation presents a conundrum for conservationists. On the one hand, it is beneficial to encourage people to get out onto the public lands in the hope that they will discover the inherent value of those lands and will join in the fight to preserve them. It’s also arguably a less impactful form of economic development than extractive industries. Yet in many ways, it’s more feasible to get a handle on the impacts of extractive industries via regulations and environmental protections than it is to mitigate the damage done by increasing numbers of recreational users. 

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