1,000 dispersed camping sites documented in Routt National Forest

Leave No Trace ethics more important as dispersed camping grows

Someone left a can of trash and a still-burning abandoned campfire at a dispersed campsite about 1 mile up a side road on Forest Service land on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, in southern Routt County.
Brian Romig/Courtesy photo

As a third-generation Routt County resident who has been actively exploring and hunting in area public lands for four decades, Cedar Beauregard has observed the changing and expanding uses in the Routt National Forest.

Beauregard is one of the volunteers for nonprofit organizations that work to educate about Leave No Trace ethics for forest users, especially after the heavy outdoor recreation levels seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Volunteers describe the past few years of increased impacts as “shocking,” “depressing,” “disrespectful,” “frustrating” and “inconsiderate.”

Experts say many less experienced users visited public lands during the pandemic, and that contributed to increased impacts. Visitation levels now are closer to pre-pandemic levels, experts say, but the trends of environmental impacts remain.

Nonprofit and Routt National Forest representatives list their top concerns: campfires left smoldering in abandoned dispersed campsites, increased volumes of unburied human waste and toilet paper, dispersed camping in more pristine areas or meadows that were not previously disturbed, and using campfires to try to burn unburnable trash such as aluminum foil. Ignoring regulations to set up camp one-quarter mile away from specified lakes such as Gilpin, Gold Creek and Three Island, as well as more dog poop and dogs off leash disturbing wildlife, are other often-mentioned concerns.

“I don’t want to limit people’s abilities to enjoy the woods and camp in the woods, but we just need to do it more carefully as the use increases,” said Beauregard, board secretary for Keep Routt Wild. “As we get more congested, people have to stay within their bounds and use more ethics because the impacts get compounded.”

Aaron Voos, Forest Service public affairs specialist, said damage from dispersed campsites is a long-recognized issue, but staff are now observing more dispersed campsites that do not get a chance to regrow and become hardened, enlarged or possibly damaged by frequent use. Through data gathering with partners the past few years, the Forest Service has identified more than 1,000 dispersed camping sites in the Routt National Forest alone.

“Depending on the site or the location, yes, those number of dispersed campsites and those areas that have been impacted are becoming more and more observable,” Voos said.

Leave No Trace outdoor ethics ask campers at dispersed campsites to use existing campfire rings. However, users of this dispersed site along Buffalo Pass Road built three campfire rings, two of which are shown here on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

With this year’s cleanup season almost over, volunteers for the nonprofit Friends of Wilderness have remediated 118 campsites. Most of those rehabbed campsites had been pitched too close to lakes and streams or within the quarter-mile buffer, including an increase in illegal camping next to Gilpin Lake, said Melanie Boone, Friends of Wilderness vice president.

In 2022, the group packed out 200 pounds of trash including grill grates, tents, stovepipe pieces, rusted fuel cans, a lawn chair and clothing from camps at backcountry lakes.

“A lot of the camping regulations are disregarded by a small fraction of the total forest users, but it still adds up to environmental damage to some of the more beautiful lakes,” said Brad Kruelskie, Friends of Wilderness president. “Cumulatively, they degrade the environment around those areas.”

Friends of Wilderness and the Yampa Valley Community Foundation provided additional funding to help the Forest Service hire a seasonal wilderness ranger during the past two years to help educate and enforce rules in the wilderness areas.

Friends is in the midst of a multi-year, grant-funded survey to assist the Hahns Peak/Bears Ears Ranger District to inventory campsites, identify invasive weeds and educate visitors in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area through a grant from the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance.

The baseline count of dispersed campsites helps with management decisions. Issues such as too much natural resource damage or too-close proximity to a road can lead to a dispersed campsite being closed by Forest Service officials, Voos said.

Heavy use in one area may lead to the expansion of fee campgrounds, such as the planned work in summer 2024 to triple the size of the Dry Lake campground on the Buffalo Pass Road, District Ranger Michael Woodbridge said.

Outdoor experts note a wide expanse between enforceable illegal actions versus Leave No Trace ethics. For example, Voos said, it is not illegal to leave human waste in the open at a dispersed campsite, but it is considered a huge forest ethics violation not to properly bury, or even pack out, human waste.

“The repercussions between suggested ethical decisions and the regulations are there may end up being more regulations in the future,” Voos said.

This pile of debris was part of the trash picked up by a Routt County resident on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023, in the vicinity of dispersed camping along Buffalo Pass Road along with broken glass, aluminum cans, food wrappers and other trash.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Todd Schmutz, Hahns Peak/Bears Ears Ranger District recreation program manager, noted most visitors do not wish to damage forest lands.

“The vast majority of people don’t come out here wanting to damage resources; a few visitors can ruin it for the vast majority,” Schmutz said.

Dealing with the impacts and messes of disrespectful or uneducated forest users may cut into time for Forest Service staff to complete other necessary work.

“If we set out with a project we want to accomplish this summer but get sidetracked with some of these other tasks that are created by user-created issues, there is an impact,” Schmutz said. “And ultimately we might not meet our recreational program objectives.”

Forest users who see prior improper camping behaviors may continue those bad practices.

“As we become congested, the impact compounds on itself,” Beauregard said. “If one person doesn’t clean up after himself, that next camper doesn’t feel obligated to do so. The easiest way to not leave a trace is not make a new trace in the first place.”

Leave No Trace recommendations

The Boulder-based nonprofit Leave No Trace was founded in 1994 and teaches seven core outdoor ethics: plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife and be considerate of other visitors.

Leave No Trace directs campers in dispersed areas to deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6-8 inches deep at least 200 feet from water, camps and trails. Campers should cover and disguise the catholes afterward.

According to the Forest Service, dispersed camping is not allowed within one-quarter mile of developed campgrounds, trailheads or picnic areas. Building campfires or camping in non-wilderness areas is not allowed within 100 feet of lakes, streams or trails. Campers are asked to stay at already clearly impacted sites and use existing campfire rings.

Some lesser known Leave No Trace ethics include:

• Good campsites are found not made; site alterations are not necessary.
• Gather campfire wood over a large area away from camp. Do not break branches off living or standing dead trees.
• Keep campfires small, and choose logs that will burn completely during the evening campfire such as wood the diameter of an adult wrist. Use established fire rings, a fire pan or camp stove.
• Coals should never be left overnight or unattended. Burn campfires down to white ash and then douse with water and stir embers in an ash soup.
• Pack out all trash and spilled or leftover food.

Some hunting-specific Leave No Trace ethics include:

• Pack out all spent brass and shotgun shells.
• Drag gut piles away from trails, water sources and highly visited areas.
• Sight-in firearms or practice firing at a shooting range. Do not use rocks, signs or trees for target practice. Do not shoot near developed areas, campsites or roads.
• Use manufactured blinds rather than constructing them out of tree branches or other native vegetation. Do not dig trenches or build structures or furniture.

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