How to be a happy camper: Sharp increase in inexperienced park visitors stress staff, natural resources
With an approximate 40% overall increase in visitor use in the past two years at Stagecoach State Park, park staff have witnessed a lot of inexperienced recreational activity.
The list is long, such as: letting dogs off leash leading to harassment of wildlife and scaring other campers, pitching a tent on a stand of wildflowers rather than on the campsite pad, paddle boarding without life jackets, fishing too close to others, not realizing fishing licenses are required, creating noise after quiet hours, failing to latch trash dumpsters and treading on social trails that leads to resource degradation.
“It is amazing and awesome to see new families out at the park, but they also are uneducated and might not know what we think of as common practices and knowledge such as leave no trace,” said Craig Preston, Stagecoach park manager for 14 years.
Park employees focus on customer service and educating visitors, but the staff is short-handed this year due to the challenges of hiring and keeping a full seasonal staff in an expensive tourist region. Keeping up with educating the increased volume of visitors is like trying to row a blow-up dinghy against the winds that can funnel strongly down the valley across the reservoir.
“Honestly we are doing the best we can,” Preston said. “We have a lot to do and are struggling to keep up with it. If we do education, we might be missing stocking a bathroom. If we are parking cars for hours in the marina parking lot, we may not get out on the boat.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife manages more than 4,000 campsites throughout the state, including 92 campsites at Stagecoach. From Memorial Day to Labor Day last summer and so far this summer, Stagecoach campgrounds recorded 100% occupancy on weekends and 95% occupancy on weekdays.
Julie Arington, Steamboat Lake State Park manager, said overall visitation there is up 30 to 40% in the past two years with similarly high weekday and weekend camping numbers. Arington said although the park is somewhat short-staffed, her operation has the advantage of offering free seasonal staff housing. She said the park has not cut programs but would like to hire two more staff at the visitor center in order to extend hours and reduce lines that sometimes stretch out the door.
Arington said keeping visitors safe with sufficient medical resources and responders in the rural area as well as water conservation are chief on her mind this season. The park staff maintains a water and wastewater system at significant expense and labor, she said, so bathroom faucets have sensors, showers are coin operated and no full RV hookups with water are offered.
“It’s very labor intensive for people to even have water at the park, and that’s something that’s easy to take for granted,” Arington said.
Arington said locals who have long visited Steamboat and Pearl lake parks should be prepared to be patient. The park draws a wide range of visitors, from folks who want to relax fishing from the shore to those who want to try out a new ski boat.
“For the most part, everybody is being patient and courteous, but people should prepare themselves, especially if they have been coming for years, that they are going to experience more neighbors and more issues because of the increase in visitation,” she said.
Locals can also volunteer to help with tasks ranging from trail maintenance to butterfly and bluebird biological studies through friendsofcoloradostateparks.com and by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic propelled visitor numbers into the outdoors, the Colorado Tourism Office and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics joined forces to help reduce visitor impacts in Colorado and introduced the Care for Colorado Principles in May 2018. The “Are you Colo-Ready?” campaign, including engaging short cartoon videos, educates about seven principles: know before you go, stick to trails, leave it as you find it, trash the trash (pack it in, pack it out), be careful with fire, keep wildlife wild, and share our trails and parks.
The Steamboat Springs Chamber has helped to educate about Leave No Trace initiatives since 2018, but the chamber joined the educational efforts full force in early June with the release of a “Visit Responsibly” webpage at steamboatchamber.com/visit-responsibly, said Angelica Salinas, chamber communications coordinator. The Visit Responsibly section has a new Know Before You Go Summer Recreation page and released a Know Before You Go Winter Recreation page last year. Some of the local educational topics include: respect the Yampa Valley, ditch the car, give wildlife space and wildfire awareness.
Preston encourages all park visitors to help out by reading and obeying park signage. Otherwise, warnings have to be replaced with citations. In March, both Stagecoach and Steamboat Lake staff gave up on continually ignored warnings for dogs off leash and started strict enforcement issuing $100 tickets to disobedient dog owners. The managers said the leash law also protects dogs from other park visitors such as porcupines, skunks, raccoons, bears, fox and coyotes.
Both park managers encourage visitors with limited outdoor experience to call ahead to ask questions or to engage in pre-trip planning through online resources such as searching “camping etiquette” at campcolorado.com and campersandcampfires.com. Some of the tips on being a good camper include: do not cut through other occupied campsites, adhere to the campground’s slow speed limits, avoid burning trash in the firepit and do not bring in firewood from out of the area that could carry in harmful insects.
One of the common difficulties with inexperienced visitors is improper catch-and-release fishing. Preston recently schooled a guest he watched engage in “the worse catch-and-release example I had ever seen.” The story involves a fisherman using two rods at once in what was supposed to be a catch-and-release situation while his dog was off leash. When the angler caught fish on both lines at once, both fish were eventually dragged onto the rocky shore, the dog nipped the fish, and a traumatized fish was thrown in brusquely.
When the fisherman started to throw back the second, bleeding fish, the park manager stepped in saying, “Don’t even bother; the fish won’t survive.”
“I educated him on proper technique. He was very receptive to that and apologetic. He said ‘I love this park,’ and I explained that he needed to act like he loves the park,” Preston said.
Preston recommends a CPW catch-and-release video that explains how to limit hooking mortality. Some tips include handle a fish as little as possible, remove the hook when the fish is still in the water and hold the fish upright in the water until it swims away under its own power.
“A lot of people are showing up to use the park who have never recreated outdoors before, never ever,” Arington said. “We are glad we are here for them, but people need to be prepared. It’s hard when you don’t know what you don’t know, so part of that is researching where you are going and what you would like to do when you get there. People come from the Front Range or from out of state to the mountains and don’t prepare for differences in weather, without proper camping equipment to keep their family comfortable and safe.”
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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