As recovery ramps up, the Colorado State Land Board is launching a pilot program for designated public campgrounds in Chaffee County
The Colorado State Land Board has designated 14 new campgrounds on its 3,400-acre property in Chaffee County’s Fourmile Recreation Management Area. The need for more locations became apparent as the surge in outdoor recreation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in resource damage.
“We’re dealing with a new form of recreation,” said Abe Medina, recreation manager at the State Land Board. He says that campers used to pitch a few tents during the hunting season. “But now [they] arrive in large RVs, multiple vehicles, toy vans, quadricycles, and side-by-sides throughout the summer.”
When the Chaffee Recreation Adopters group began monitoring campgrounds across the county last year, they documented increasing damage. Dozens of self-built, undesignated campsites and associated cul-de-sacs destroyed acres of vegetation. The State Land Board has noted that visitors have made dangerous campfires in the middle of grassy meadows and built racetracks and jumps for horseback riding. “It’s a much more intensive use. It grew to the point where we had to do something,” Medina said.
The State Land Board is the second largest land owner in the state. Trust lands, commonly known as “school sections,” total nearly three million acres and are all managed by the state land board. These are located throughout the state, including 16,600 acres in Chaffee County. The sections were granted by the federal government at statehood to generate revenue for public bodies.
More than $2 billion has been raised over the past 15 years, primarily to fund Colorado’s BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) program. Other public institutions, such as the state penitentiary system, are also beneficiaries.
The State Land Board is responsible for the profitable management of land, which is typically achieved by leasing land to agricultural operators and others. Livestock breeders use this pasture lease as summer pasture for herds.
Medina said grazing at Chubb Park has become more difficult because the longtime tenant, a Chaffee County rancher, is having a hard time herding cows onto the property. Cattle understandably do not drink from water tanks surrounded by campers. Some campers have been chasing calves with SUVs and damaging the agricultural irrigation system.
According to Medina, the solution to compliant, mixed-use land management at this site is to offer camping at 14 designated sites, each equipped with a numbered site post and metal fire ring. Posted signs convey the rules.
“We have considered closing the area to camping but recognize that this will only push people into the surrounding areas who are also under pressure and have therefore decided to try to continue camping with new rules and signage ‘ said Medina.
The Chubb Park trust property is surrounded by National Forest in the 100,000-acre Fourmile Recreation Area, which includes Bureau of Land Management properties near the towns of Buena Vista and Salida.
Medina worked with other land managers through a local process supported by Envision Chaffee County to implement the All Lands Camping Strategy outlined in the Chaffee County Outdoor Recreation Management Plan. The goal is to provide high-quality, low-impact camping opportunities to address residents’ concerns about the growth of unmanaged campgrounds such as trash, human waste, declining experience quality, and the potential for man-made wildfires caused by user-created campfire rings emanate.
The district plan supports solutions like the State Land Board’s Chubb Park project to preserve the quality of outdoor experiences, protect resources like clean water, and ensure the recreation economy is sustainable. New signs and campgrounds were paid for by the State Land Board with support from the Chaffee County Visitors Bureau, the National Forest Foundation, and a mini-grant from Chaffee Common Ground.
Camping remains free at Chubb Park this year and it’s first come, first served. Medina said a fee is likely in the future and that if the Chubb Park model is successful, designated camping could be used on additional school lots such as Waunita Reservoir near Tomichi Dome. “We want to be part of the regional conversation as many communities need help to offer more sustainable camping,” he said.
The Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners is a constitutional agency that administers $4 billion in appropriations for the benefit of Colorado’s K-12 schoolchildren and public entities. The agency is the second largest landowner in Colorado and generates revenue on behalf of beneficiaries by leasing nearly three million acres of surface and four million acres of minerals for agriculture, grazing, recreation, commercial real estate, rights of way, renewable energy, and oil, gas and mining . Unlike public property, trust property is not open to the public unless a property has been leased for public access.
The agency is fully self-financed and receives no tax money. The agency has generated more than $2 billion for public schools over the past 15 years.
Featured Image: Chubb Park in the Fourmile recreation area has 14 new scattered campgrounds. Photo courtesy of Envision Chaffee County.