Unprecedented backcountry recreation is damaging the environment and taxing limited resources. Officials hope increased education and enforcement will stem the impacts.
As a steady stream of Jeeps, ATVs and side-by-sides headed up County Road 361 Monday morning, Ouray Police Chief Jeff Wood and Ouray County Sheriff Justin Perry held up their hands, stopping each vehicle as it approached Senator Gulch.
“We’ve had a couple issues with people driving off the trail,” Wood told one driver, handing him a flyer detailing the rules of backcountry etiquette.
“We’ve had a few incidents of people driving on the tundra,” he said, “so just take a look at it when you get a chance.”
In about two hours, the pair handed out more than 50 of the flyers to drivers on Camp Bird Road and at the entrance to Engineer Pass, both popular sites for off-highway-vehicle drivers, who are swarming the region this summer. Though the Alpine Loop is always a popular destination for four-wheel enthusiasts, the gateway communities to the route are noticing the impacts of its popularity during the pandemic.
The unprecedented number of visitors who are driving and hiking trails and backcountry roads is putting pressure on local resources and, in some cases, causing damage to fragile tundra and other public lands. Local law enforcement, Forest Service employees and outdoor enthusiasts are also making efforts to educate people about the impacts of their behavior to mitigate the effects.
Traffic counts from the Ouray County Road and Bridge Department show significantly more use of County Road 361 this summer. In June 2019, the county recorded 19,151 vehicles at the Ice Park Bridge and 11,825 at the Weehawken Bridge. This June, they tallied 27,173 at the Ice Park Bridge and 17,812 at the Weehawken Bridge. In July, usage of the road climbed from just under 33,000 vehicles last year at the Ice Park Bridge to more than 47,000.
“There’s a huge increase in the amount of people up there,” department administrative assistant Christy Williams said. That’s resulted in more calls for maintenance, especially for roads that the department doesn’t typically maintain, she said.
“We have seen an increase in visitation to our national forests this year, including first-time visitors,” particularly in dispersed camping and trail use, said Kimberlee Phillips, spokeswoman for the Grand Mesa, Uncompaghre and Gunnison National Forests. That’s created myriad issues, including vegetation trampled by camping and parking, soil compaction and erosion, damage to wildlife habitats and more problems with human and dog waste. There has also been an increase “in illegal activities including off-route use from motorized and mountain bike users,” she said.
The increase has been particularly evident at Blue Lakes, Yankee Boy Basin and the East, Middle and West forks of the Cimarron River, Phillips said.
“In terms of individuals practicing good outdoor ethics, that has also been questionable,” San Juan National Forest Public Affairs Officer Esther Godson said. She pointed to a “significant uptick in motorized travel off designated routes,” as well as numerous abandoned campfires. Ice Lakes and Columbine Lake near Silverton have been heavily affected, she said.
Even legal activities, like driving on the county’s OHV roads, are causing damage because of overuse. As he drove up County Road 361, Perry noted areas where the surface is rougher than normal. “The more people we have on this road, the more it washboards,” he said. When cars without four-wheel drive and high clearance try to drive OHV roads, they can wear down the surface more as well, Wood said.
“We’re seeing a lot more pressure on roads with the high numbers,” said Michael Maxfield, who works for San Juan County’s Roads Department. That puts “a lot more wear and tear on the roads.” His department has only three employees, “so it’s hard for us to cover 200-and-some miles of four-wheel-drive road.”
When people drive or camp off trails and roads, it can cause collateral damage beyond their own impact, widening trails, creating new ones and encouraging others to follow in their footsteps.
“Most people are pretty good at finding a spot that does not create a lot of damage,” said Maxfield, who created the San Juan Mountain Trail Group on Facebook, where people share their trips and off-road excursions with more than 10,000 members. “But if you get one that camps where they shouldn’t, all of a sudden you find five that pull off and camp in the same spot, and then what was a pristine place is now just a parking lot with dust and rock.”
Some of the issues have been documented on social media and in Maxfield’s group, in posts trying to identify perpetrators or educate others about what not to do.
Nature photographer and Ridgway resident Tony Litschewski posted photos of tire tracks through wildflower fields, which attracted hundreds of comments and shares. “Two words immediately come to mind — ignorance and entitlement,” he wrote. “I've been going to this area for over 30 years. Never have I seen anything like what I saw this weekend. People camping in the tundra meadows, trampled hillsides where the good wildflowers are, and tire tracks literally through the fields of wildflowers.”
Areas like Silverjack Reservoir and Ice Lakes Basin “literally have thousands of people in these areas on the weekends,” he said in an interview. “The vast majority of people were following the rules and using proper etiquette. It’s just a very small percentage, but when you have this many people coming to the area, that small percentage adds up and it becomes much more noticeable.”
Litschewsi attributed some of this year’s increase to COVID-19. “People are just looking to get outdoors, somewhere they can drive to, and we just happen to live in the beautiful part of the lower 48,” he said.
Visitation to the region has increased this summer, fueled in part by the pandemic. Some are choosing road trips over flights, while others are looking to travel to places where they have outdoor recreation options that feel safer or haven’t been canceled.
“This year, people are so interested in getting out in nature, which is great,” Godson said, but that’s creating the logjams on trails, even on more challenging routes that usually aren’t as popular.
“Typically those hikes and lakes, they’re rigorous hikes, which is sometimes a filter,” she said. But this year, more people “are really attempting those very arduous hikes as well.”
“With this COVID-19 thing, there’s a lot of things that are shut down, so everybody’s coming to the mountains,” Maxfield said. “We’ve seen the numbers grow over the years, but this year it has gotten really crazy.”
Perry said people seem more aggressive and less patient, leading to altercations like the one on Aug. 1 on Imogene Pass. A dispute over right-of-way ended with a California man punching a driver from Montrose and knocking him unconscious.
The department has also responded to six rollover accidents on Engineer Pass this summer, including three at the same spot about a 1 ½ miles from U.S. 550 over the course of eight days due to washouts, Perry said.
Dan Taber, who was driving his Nissan Xterra in the area on July 31, was the third to roll there when the saturated roadway gave out beneath him.
“I basically drove on a wet road that had been washed out, repaired by the Ouray County Roads and then rain washed it out again,” he said. While the surface looked dry, “I drove on a spongy, wet section of it, and the road collapsed under my tires.”
Taber, president of the Nissan Off-Road Association of Colorado, said he was lucky his bumper and spare-tire carrier caught the car and stopped it from rolling further, allowing himself and his passengers to climb out safely, though the car was totaled.
Bill Frownfelter, interim Ouray County Road and Bridge superintendent, said a major repair was done there last summer, followed by multiple repairs this summer. “I’m going to try to get a contractor up there to do a permanent repair,” he said, because currently water “just washes over the road.” They’re looking at adding in a retaining wall, he said.
In addition to the rollovers reported on Engineer Pass, Perry suspects there have been more that go unreported, or that he’s heard about only afterward because people were able to right themselves and carry on without injury, he said.
Ouray County EMS hasn’t had an increase in calls to backcountry roads, Chief Paramedic Kim Mitchell said. “It definitely seems like there’s more traffic,” she said, but it hasn’t correlated to more calls for service.
“I feel like we’ve had more people that get themselves into town after they’ve had an accident, and then they call us,” she said. In those cases, they sometimes need minor treatment, like stitches, or just “want to be checked out and reassured.”
Perry, who said his trip with Wood to the OHV roads to pass out information was a first for Ouray County, is hoping a combination of education and enforcement can head off some of the issues.
He’s hoping to hand out trail etiquette information weekly, and his deputies will patrol the OHV roads more often, when possible, in the hopes that drivers will be more informed and be deterred from some of the activities. For next summer, he wants to revamp the county’s agreements with the Forest Service to be “more proactive.”
The flyers Perry and Wood handed out were created by Brian Duckles, owner of Ourray’s Timber Ridge Lodge, and graphic designer Gretchen McArthur. They talked to Maxfield and Stay the Trail Colorado about the guidelines, which include staying on designated trails, packing out all trash, obeying speed limits and moving over for other vehicles to pass.
“Our goal is to get it out to any business that wants it,” Duckles said, and “to try to maintain our backcountry, because if we don’t, we’re all going to lose in the end.” He hopes Jeep rental companies and other businesses interacting with people heading to the backcountry will make the information available for people who may be first-timers or are otherwise just unaware of the rules and their impact.
“I personally would like to see a little more BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and Forest Service enforcement up here,” Maxfield said, though he acknowledged that their staff and budgets are stretched thin.
Phillips said the Forest Service has shifted some staff roles “to add more capacity in hot spots and maintain facilities,” especially in the Cimarron and Ironton areas. They’ve also increased trash collection to deal with the litter issues. Staff and employees are trying to inform people about Leave No Trace ethics, camping regulations and motor vehicle use locations, she said, but visitors “should prepare and familiarize themselves” with that information.
“We have increased a lot of our field presence, and increased patrolling and citing people for driving off roads,” Godson said, especially on weekends. But with limited resources, “volunteers have been really key to providing education information.” The San Juan Mountains Association has set up a visitor booth to try to inform people at the popular Ice Lakes trail, she said.
“It’s all really tied into knowing before you go,” she said. That means checking route maps and camping areas, “and knowing where you can go and what you can do.”
Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report for America, a nonprofit program focused on supporting journalism in underserved areas. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to support her work here in Ouray County.