Trail use measured by Pitkin County Open Space and Trails rose sharply from 2019 to 2020, leading to land degradation and a spike in enforcement contacts for rangers working the county-managed public lands.
“OST has hosted a record number of visitors in 2020,” wrote Gary Tennenbaum in the budget supplemental request presented to the county’s board of county commissioners and OST board on March 2. Trail visitation, tracked by infrared counters, rose from 382,969 in 2019 to 551,869 in 2020 — a 44% increase — according to OST data shared with Aspen Journalism.
Daily visits on the local trail system were on the rise after the lifts stopped last March when the pandemic started, leading to a big increase in enforcement contacts with OST rangers, Aspen Journalism reported in June. But during summer and fall, visitors and locals kept flocking to Pitkin County’s trails and properties.
“This use, combined with new patterns of social distancing, has translated into visible impacts and degradation on the land,” Tennenbaum wrote in the budget supplemental request concerning a $90,825 grant that will fund an expanded volunteer stewardship program awarded to the county by Great Outdoors Colorado. “OST is seeing more braided and two-tracked trails, hardened surfaces for congregating away from other groups, improper disposal of human waste, and roadside erosion from unofficial parking.”
Some of the largest user-day increases were seen on the Brush Creek, Crystal and Prince Creek trails, both of which saw visitation in 2020 double that of 2019. Prince Creek Trail, which serves a popular mountain-biking trail network outside Carbondale, has seen increasing use since the county made trailhead improvements in 2017. Annual visits went from 22,308 in 2019 to 44,190 in 2020.
Also, notably, from June 1 through Dec. 31, the highest increase in terms of rate of use was at the Lazy Glen Bridge, which has provided access to the Rio Grande Trail for residents of the Lazy Glen subdivision since 2017. Trail use at the bridge went from 1,526 in 2019 to 3,339 in 2020. Tennembaum said that more people from Lazy Glen have been using the bridge during the pandemic. OST also noticed an increase in fishing from that location.
2020 saw a double peak
The summer season of 2019 started slowly, thanks in part to a late-lingering snowpack. In June 2019, about 10,500 visits to Pitkin County trails and properties were recorded. But this number spiked during the first week of July, rising to 5,378 total visits on July 5. Stein Park, a popular gateway to the Rio Grande Trail at the end of Cemetery Lane, accounted for 1,431 of those visits. After this peak, visitation varied from about 1,800 to 4,000 visits a day until mid-August, when it began to steadily decrease through winter.
But last summer was a different story as two peak seasons can be identified. June was busier than ever, with approximately 80,000 visits. The following month, OST trails and properties were about as popular as they were in July 2019 and usage followed the familiar pattern of tapering off through August. Then the second peak began to rise.
Stein Park, Smuggler Platform and the section of the Rio Grande Trail through Woody Creek were particularly popular, all seeing significantly higher use through the fall than in 2019. This second peak subsided by late October, when most trails and properties started to get fewer visits.
The Ute Mountaineer, an outdoor sports store in downtown Aspen, confirmed it has seen an increase in outdoor-gear sales and rentals despite the capacity restrictions due to the pandemic. A store representative said via email that sales of hard goods and accessories are up double digits.
Increased violations and lower tolerance at North Star
This increase in trail use has led to a rise in enforcement contacts from county rangers, who issued two times more verbal warnings, written warnings and penalty assessments during last summer, fall and winter than the year before.
From June 1 through Dec. 31, these enforcement contacts jumped from 146 in 2019 to 306 in 2020. That amounted to 150 verbal warnings, up from 97 in 2019; 103 written warnings, up from 21; and 53 penalty assessments, up from 28.
Most warnings and penalty assessments were issued at the North Star Nature Preserve, with a total of 172 contacts, including 49 verbal warnings, 79 written warnings and 44 penalty assessments. In contrast, from June 1 through Dec. 31, 2019, only 21 contacts between rangers and trail users were counted at North Star.
About 70% of the penalty assessments from last June 1 through Dec 31 fined users for having their dogs off leash or for bringing dogs in a prohibited area.
Increased visitation partially explains the 2020 enforcement-contact spike at North Star, but updates to the management plan for the preserve, which aims to protect its natural resources, have made for a less-tolerant enforcement policy, Tennembaum said in an email.
“A ticket was immediately issued since warnings were not working, and there are significant natural resource and private land issues with people getting off their paddleboards in areas that are not designated and signed to allow that,” Tennenbaum wrote.
The busyness of 2020 has been challenging for the three full-time rangers working for Pitkin County OST. Three seasonal rangers will start working in mid to late April.
“We had two seasonal (ranger positions) last year and are adding a third this year,” Tennenbaum said.
Preparing for summers to come
OST applied for and received a $90,825 grant from the state-funded group Great Outdoors Colorado, which will support an expanded volunteer program in the 2021 and 2022 summer seasons. This grant was accepted by the board of county commissioners Jan. 27 and received a recommendation from the OST board March 2. The county will collaborate with Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, a Basalt-based nonprofit stewardship organization, and intends to more than double the RFOV’s volunteer projects that will help address the impacts of the increased use.
“More people than ever are participating in an outdoors culture, but an outdoors culture is not synonymous with a culture of stewardship,” said Jacob Baker, who is with RFOV. “The purpose of Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, in our work with Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, quite simply is to transform trail users into trail participants.”
In 2020, RFOV members — ages 5 to 81 — worked 3,100 hours, said Baker, with up to 5,000 hours, including those from staff members. They expect volunteer hours tol increase an additional 20% this year, Baker said. RFOV will dedicate at least one staff member three to four days a week to lead volunteer community or group projects with the county’s OST staff, Baker said.
“Those projects could include trail building, trail maintenance or trail restoration, riparian or wetlands restoration, post-burn restoration or degraded habitat restoration, and potentially fire mitigation,” Baker said. Educational hikes and other events will also be part of OST and RFOV collaboration.
“While it is wonderful that residents and visitors are taking advantage of frontcountry and backcountry outdoors experiences,” Baker said, “it’s also important that they recognize how they can best participate in a culture of stewardship, that they share in the responsibility for our shared outdoors.”
This story ran in the March 17 edition of The Aspen Times.