Increase in recreation good for business, but could be bad for the forest
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — An increase of recreation proved to be a double-sided sword in Steamboat Springs.
Stores have reaped the benefit and recorded a historic summer of sales. However, the nearby Routt National Forest has suffered a bit of abuse from the rising number of recreators.
‘Our biggest month ever’: Sporting goods stores thrive despite overall dip in sales tax collection
As restaurants and boutiques in downtown Steamboat Springs limited capacity and saw a thinner stream of people coming through the door, sporting good stores, outfitters and bike shops saw more traffic than ever.
In May, the city reported that sales tax collection was down 4% from the previous May, but that sporting good sales tax was up nearly 67%. The next month, city sales tax collection was down 11.3% compared to June of 2019, but sporting goods was up 41.7%. Meanwhile, lodging and amenities were down 49% in June.
“I have never seen anything like this from one category being way up and a different category being way down,” said Kim Weber, city finance director. “This was definitely a surprise for us to see our restaurants and lodging down, yet sporting goods up in large percentages.”
Weber said the 2009 recession brought on similar drops in sales tax collection, but those drops were more widespread across all categories, except for groceries, utilities and liquor stores, which were stable.
The increase is only determined by stores that are deemed sporting goods stores, of which there are 97 in Steamboat Springs. The figure doesn’t include any sporting goods sold at stores designated under a different category. Anything sold at department stores such as Walmart or Walgreens isn’t considered.
John Duty, owner of Bucking Rainbow Outfitters, expected a slower summer with the pandemic, so he didn’t have as much staff on hand. Still, with less staff and, therefore, fewer fly-fishing trips for patrons, the business had a successful summer. Even from a retail standpoint, they had a busy few months, watching apparel and fly-fishing equipment fly off the shelf.
“If we had more staff, we probably would have had a record-type year,” said Duty.
Duty said people typically choose to book with Bucking Rainbow on weekdays, spending the weekend participating in one of the many events that fill the Steamboat summer calendar. However, with fewer events, Bucking Rainbow ended up being busy on the weekdays and weekends.
From mid-June on, Bucking Rainbow was booked solid, and only recently started to see a lull in business.
Ski and Bike Kare had a far different experience. As people realized being outdoors was one of the only things they could do amid mass closures, they cleared the market of low-end bikes, then the mid-range bikes. The spike in demand led to bike shortages across the globe, but it also led to a massive surge in sales.
Foster Martin, general manager at Ski and Bike Kare, said the store saw $150,000 more in June of this year than the previous best June.
“June was our biggest month ever in 25 years of business,” said Martin. “August and September have slowed down just because we ran out of stuff to sell. If we had as many bikes as we would have liked to, August and September would have been huge as well.”
More use means more abuse
More recreation is a double-edged sword.
It’s hard to measure how much people use places on national forest land, such as Buffalo Pass.
Unlike national parks, there aren’t staffed gates that tally how many people are coming in national forests. Places, such as Fish Creek Falls that require a self-pay pass, have a rough tally of usage but can’t always be trusted since many may not pay for one. Additionally, those numbers are skewed this year since locations opened later than usual due to the pandemic.
That being said, there is no denying that over the past few years, Buffalo Pass has seen increased use.
This year followed that same pattern, but the summer of 2020 seemed to be particularly busy, according to Aaron Voos, national forest public affairs specialist for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grassland.
“We don’t go out and ask visitors why they are in the forest,” he said. “But it does seem like there is an additional desire for people to get out and experience the outdoors this year.”
Voos said Buffalo Pass is one of the most high-profile recreation locations not only in Routt National Forest, but in the entire administrative unit.
Due to the obvious increase in usage in recent years, the U.S. Forest Service enlisted the help of Routt County Riders and the city of Steamboat Springs to track just how many people take advantage of the trails on Buffalo Pass. Both the city and Routt County Riders have collected data during the past two years and are in the process of tallying their counts.
Voos said Forest Service staff members and law enforcement officers haven’t kept official tallies, but have observed increased usage this summer.
“Some of that is positive. It’s just more people on a trail or in a parking lot or along a stretch of creek,” said Voos. “That’s fine. The national forest can handle some of that increased usage. Some of the observations though have been negative, regarding how people are handling themselves while on forest land.”
Voos said negative aspects of that include additional trash in heavy-use areas like parking lots and campgrounds, as well as violations. People drive too far off the road with their vehicles to get to a dispersed campsite and off-road violations with ATVs. There has also been a notable amount of unattended campfires.
Fire hasn’t been a huge issue this year, though. The Middle Fork Fire is burning in North Routt County, but has been ruled a lightning-caused wildfire. Voos said this summer showed an improvement over prior years, with the number of human-caused fires down in 2020.
Routt County and the Routt National Forest entered Stage I fire restrictions in July and entered Phase II in mid-August.
“They have been fairly successful as far as decreasing the number of human-caused starts,” said Voos.
Signs regarding the fire restrictions are everywhere and nearly impossible to ignore since most are bright red or yellow. It’s hard to say if more signs would improve other issues plaguing Routt National Forest, though. Packing out what you pack in and not leaving wrappers at a parking lot should be common sense, but has proven difficult for many, simply based on the amount of trash observed at places like Buffalo Pass or even the Mad Creek trailhead.
It’s not just up to the Forest Service, though. Routt County Riders and the city are already involved, and the need for some sort of assistance at Buffalo Pass is voiced at nearly every Routt Recreation Roundtable.
At this point, it’s just a matter of figuring out exactly what would help educate people to treat the land with more respect. There are already a few longterm projects in the works, though.
“They’re ready to go, the environmental analysis has already been done and they will be taking place on Buffalo Pass,” said Voos. “That’s improvements to the Dry Lake Recreation site and campground, also to the road itself. Those are two big projects that will be taking place in the next couple years.”
To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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