Recreation closure in California Park eases some concerns

A beat up sign photographed on June 17, 2022, along Routt County Road 80 north of Hayden shows the distances to California and Slater parks. California Park has been temporarily closed to recreational use through July 15.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The temporary closure of recreation in the California Park area in north Routt County alleviates some concerns for environmental and wildlife organizations, but leaders remain cautious about possible environmental impacts from the 50th anniversary Rainbow Gathering.

U.S. Forest Service officials said the closure that is in effect through July 15, if not rescinded sooner, is meant to protect natural resources in the California Park area within Routt National Forest “because of the high probability for excessive public use leading up to and during the Fourth of July holiday.”

The Rainbow Gathering is located 25 miles north of Hayden in Adams Park, just north of California Park.

The recreational closure “is one of the forest management tools we have available to utilize during times of extreme circumstances,” said Forest Supervisor Russ Bacon. “Closing portions of the forest is not something we take lightly. In this case though, it is the right thing to do.”

The north side of the recreational closure runs near the Adams Park area where an estimated 2,500 Rainbows have so far set up camps, kitchens, latrines and a water delivery system from springs. The Rainbow Gathering is predicted to attract approximately 10,000 campers focused around a morning of silent prayer for peace on July 4.

Tim Sullivan, resilient land and water director at Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, said the California Park area represents, “an accumulation of a lot of all the important ecological values and sensitive areas concentrated in one place” in Routt County.

“I’m more confident that the Forest Service has tools to avoid impacts to the most sensitive areas in California Park, but I’m still concerned about people camping in those areas and not respecting closures,” said Sullivan.

Read here for all things Rainbow Gathering

“This is a good start and closes a sensitive part of the forest. We applaud the Forest Service taking this action to protect this portion of our public lands,” said Larry Desjardin, president of Keep Routt Wild.

California Park is managed by the Forest Service as a “special interest area” for the biological diversity, geological, historical, paleontological and other values as described in the Routt National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan.

California Park has been the site of various riparian restoration projects, including at First Creek last year and at Armstrong Creek in past years led by the Forest Service and a variety of nonprofit partners such as Trout Unlimited.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife Northwest Region Public Information Officer Rachael Gonzales said the remoteness of Adams Park makes it a prime elk calving area, as well as home to mule deer, pronghorn, greater and sharp-tailed sage grouse and mountain lions.

A sign marks a sensitive riparian area in California Park just a few miles south of the 50th anniversary Rainbow Gathering in Adams Park.
John F. Russell /Steamboat Pilot & Today

Desjardin said species maps indicate Adams Park is likely an elk nursery area for small groups of cow elk and young calves.

“Human disturbance leads to unnecessary calorie expenditures and makes elk prone to predation,” Desjardin explained.

“We’re glad that California Park got closed,” said Erin Gelling, program director for the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition based in Hayden. “It’s a good step forward. It does help alleviate some concerns that we’ve had.”

Attendees at the Rainbow Gathering staged food along the trail to the Adams Park meadow as campers were bringing in supplies on June 17 for kitchen areas.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Gelling believes sandhill cranes have recently nested in numerous ponds along the Adams Creek drainage, and many cranes use California Park for nesting. The cranes are listed by the state of Colorado as a “species of concern” due to population numbers and habitat loss, Gelling explained.

Gelling said she remains concerned about disturbances to newly hatched chicks that cannot fly yet and for adult cranes that may still be incubating on nests in the higher elevation areas of California and Adams parks. The impact from 10,000 people living in the area for a week could cause cranes to avoid the area next year, she said.

“If they get disturbed too much, especially in a breeding area, they might not return to that area in the following year. So that’s the big reason why it’s such a big issue,” Gelling said.

National Rainbow Incident Management Team Public Information Officer Hilary Markim said Tuesday that Colorado Parks and Wildlife has had no reports so far of human-wildlife interactions at the gathering.

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