Roaring Fork Valley residents flocked to Pitkin County’s open space properties and trails this spring after the lifts stopped in mid-March and after being told to recreate closer to home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, leading to an increase in “enforcement contacts” with rangers.

The number of enforcement contacts — in which rangers had to remind people of the rules through a simple conversation, a warning or a ticket — exploded in the spring, especially in May. From March 1 through the end of May, rangers had an enforcement contact with 385 trail users. Over the same period last year, rangers had contact with only 52 people.

Last month was especially busy for the rangers, with 211 enforcement contacts. In May 2019, there were only 14 such contacts.

“The demand for ranger response during the last three months has been unprecedented,” Gary Tennenbaum, the director of Open Space and Trails, said June 2 in his monthly report to the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners.

The county’s infrared trail counters for the viewing platform on Smuggler Mountain Road recorded 30,710 visits from March 1 to May 31 this year, up from 23,828 during the same period in 2019. Visits to the viewing platform were especially high this past April, when 10,571 visits were logged, compared with 7,115 visits in April 2019.

At the other end of the county, traffic at the Prince Creek trailhead, above Carbondale, also increased this year, with 17,964 visits recorded over the three months, up from 6,301 over the same period in 2019. And the Prince Creek trailhead was very popular in May, when the number of visits were double those in May 2019.

But the infrared sensors on the trail counters do not work well with the water surface, so they aren’t used to track visitors to the North Star Nature Preserve. Instead, rangers use the wildlife cameras to estimate visitation on the Roaring Fork River at North Star.

“Is this a one-time kind of a blip compared to the years past or is this the future?” Tennenbaum asked.

The Open Space and Trails department keeps monitoring visitation data over the summer, Tennenbaum said. The department may need to wait until September before making any decisions for next year to keep up with the increased use.

Pitkin County was not alone in experiencing heavy use of its public lands this past spring. For example, there were 250,000 more visits to state parks in March compared with March 2019, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife data.

“We love it that people are out and recreating — if everyone’s doing it responsibly,” Tennenbaum said.

But sometimes people can be clueless about the county’s open space rules and regulations, which aim to protect and preserve natural habitat and wildlife from human activity. This year, rangers have had to answer questions about masks and social distancing, even if rangers do not keep track of violations of any public health order.

Ranger Supervisor Pryce Hadley said that the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic were even more confusing, especially for outside visitors during spring break.

“We had people that weren’t informed about the local public health order and were traveling through,” Hadley said.

There are no dogs allowed at Aspen’s North Star Nature Preserve. Due to increased use of public lands this spring, there were more violations of rules, including unleashed dogs, compared to last year. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
There are no dogs allowed at Aspen’s North Star Nature Preserve. Due to increased use of public lands this spring, there were more violations of rules, including unleashed dogs, compared to last year. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Education and tickets

A lot of people are still moving to the Roaring Fork Valley because it seems a safer place to stay during the pandemic, Tennenbaum said. But some are completely new to the area and are not familiar with the local rules.

“We want to educate them on how to be good users,” Tennenbaum said.

These educational conversations with users of open spaces and trails accounted for 80% of the 385 enforcement contacts that rangers had from March through May. An enforcement contact also includes an oral or written warning issued by a ranger, or even a ticket, which can carry a $100 fine.

Hadley said that if he and his colleagues see someone about to break a rule, they will reach out to that person to try to let them know what open space values the rules are meant to protect.

Last month, rangers lectured 146 people before they violated a rule and warned 51 users either verbally or on paper. But sometimes a rule violation leads to a ticket — last month, 15 people received a penalty assessment. In May 2019, only two tickets were handed out.

“We didn’t look into being more flexible,” Tennenbaum said. “Wildlife had no idea that COVID was happening.”

Rangers, however, seem to have been more understanding in the early days of the pandemic. The three tickets issued to people walking with their unleashed dogs on the lower Rio Grande Trail between February 28 and March 17 were reduced to written warnings due to “COVID-19 discretion,” the Open Space and Trails data shows.

But the 15 tickets issued in May came with penalties ranging from a $50 fine for a trailhead-parking violation at Prince Creek to a $250 fine for a second offense of walking with an unleashed dog on the upper Rio Grande Trail.

Six of the tickets in May were for people who had brought their dogs into the North Star open space, often right past a sign warning that no dogs are allowed.

Rangers issued five tickets to people violating the spring closure on the mountain-bike trails in Sky Mountain Park, which sits between Owl Creek and Brush Creek roads, and where the trails cross seasonal elk-calving and migration areas.

Also last month, a $100 ticket was given to a local mother who was walking with her daughter and two unleashed dogs in the Red Wind Point open space, near Redstone; the open space was closed to protect bighorn sheep in the area. In this instance, Hadley reported that the mother and daughter had a “cooperative attitude” and “took responsibility for their actions.”

But that’s not always the case.

On May 3, Hadley was informed that a dog was on a riverside beach in the North Star open space, where dogs are not allowed. Hadley walked toward the beach, where he encountered an Aspen resident with a leashed dog “near a post displaying a ‘no dogs’ sign icon,” Hadley wrote in his report of the incident.

The man then “indicated he had reached the beach by walking off-trail allegedly bypassing both visible signs,” Hadley wrote, adding that he explained to the man “that visitors are required to stay on trail at all times at North Star Nature Preserve.” The man was issued a $100 ticket.

The man protested, saying he would seek to delay the matter in the local courts. He later called Hadley and “spoke with a raised volume during our phone conversation and I ascertained he was upset with the outcome of our contact,” Hadley wrote.

As of May 26, the ticket had not been paid and the citation has been submitted to court for a hearing June 30.

This story ran in the June 29 edition of The Aspen Times.

Laurine Lassalle is Aspen Journalism’s data desk editor, where she works to catalogue and analyze local public data. She also heads our our “Tracking the Curve” project, documenting COVID-19 in Pitkin,...