Chaffee County has seen an increase in footfall on public lands over the past five years.
As a result, the most common problem the county is currently trying to deal with is unregulated, dispersed camping.
Developed camping is a regulated campsite that is rented for the duration of the stay. Regulated campgrounds often have amenities such as restrooms, drinking water, electric hook-ups, picnic tables, and fire rings.
These campgrounds allow authorities, including the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service, to manage the impacts caused by campers.
Campers are allowed to occupy these spaces within 30 days to two weeks and are not allowed to leave personal belongings unattended for more than 72 hours.
The appeal of dispersed camping is that it’s free and allows campers to get away from modern conveniences and closer to nature.
However, these campsites en masse are doing more damage to the environment and local area than people might realize.
“The current state of dispersed camping, where there are very few regulations about where visitors can camp, is impacting the environment and the quality of outdoor experiences,” said Cindy Williams, co-chair of Envision Chaffee County. “These sites include 1 million square feet of bare ground, 4,500 gallons of trash, and 690 human waste sites.”
“There’s nothing illegal about dispersed camping, but it’s still bad for the environment,” said Kalem Lenard, assistant manager of the Bureau of Land Management.
Human impacts on the land include the possibility of fires spreading from campfires, destruction of wildlife habitat, corrosion of rivers and lakes, and water pollution from human excreta.
As noted in the 2020 Chaffee Recreation Survey, 53 percent of residents and 33 percent of visitors say the quality of outdoor experiences in Chaffee County has declined. The reasons for this are irresponsible users, garbage and human waste.
“Seventy percent of residents and more than half of all respondents say the benefits of visitors coming for recreation do not outweigh the negative effects — and that was before the accelerated use of outdoor recreation related to the pandemic,” he said Williams.
There are currently more than 2,900 campgrounds scattered throughout Chaffee and Lake Counties.
“We’ve had about a 36 percent increase in attendance for campground demand over the past five years and it’s projected to continue to increase,” Lenard said.
The Chaffee Recreation Council, a group of 23 leaders from land management agencies, local governments and communities, plans to alleviate the problem with the 2021 Chaffee County Outdoor Recreation Management Plan.
The plan will coordinate a camping strategy across countries to provide better camping quality, additional capacity on private properties and better managed camping on public properties.
“Camping on State Land Board properties in Chubb Park has transitioned from scattered to quality sites. Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area has worked with the appropriate federal agencies to approve camping at Turtle Rock, Tunnel View, Elephant Rock and No. 4 Rapid to transition to designated locations,” Williams said.
“The USFS and BLM are advancing evaluation of options to better manage camping on state land, including the ability to camp at designated locations in high-traffic areas, closing noxious sites, and creating new opportunities such as campgrounds,” he said you.
“We are in the process of creating a camping plan and resource management plan. Right now we’re looking at how we can provide great camping opportunities and still help out,” Lenard said.
The Chaffee Recreation Rangers, administered by the US Forest Service Salida Ranger District, enforce current rules and help campers educate. These officers report and report camping violations to law enforcement, take care of campgrounds and public lands, and train campers in the care of public lands.
“Many visitors are surprised to learn that they shouldn’t park and camp on living vegetation,” Chaffee Recreation ranger Bryan Malek said in a recent press release. “They drive past bare ground and further into the forest in search of a fresh place to camp, destroying more vegetation that will not grow back.”
People who want to help keep our public and private lands beautiful can enroll as part of the Chaffee Recreation Adopters. This group of people donates time and energy to cleaning up litter from designated campgrounds and public lands. Chaffee Rec Adopters removed more than 2 tons of trash and ash this summer alone.
“Our variety and quality of outdoor recreational experiences, and the amazing forests, bodies of water and wildlife that support them, are part of what makes this such a wonderful place to live and visit,” Williams said. “The Recreation Council works to create a culture of community working together to protect these resources to keep recreation clean, fun and wild for this generation and for generations to come.”