The challenge of managing user conflicts in Colorado’s great outdoors
Hundreds of miles of trails across thousands of acres of public open space add up to a back-door paradise for Boulder residents like James Dziezynski. Any time he’s not at work or asleep, you’re likely to find Dziezynski taking full advantage of Boulder County’s many nearby opportunities for recreation.
A hardcore mountain biker, Dziezynski relishes the single track at Heil Ranch, a 5,000-acre tract of open space on the north edge of town. You won’t find him there with his border collie, Fremont, however, as Heil Ranch-a haven for wildlife-is off-limits to dogs. Fremont accompanies him elsewhere, though Dziezynski is worried that plans for new leash laws may inhibit the dog’s freedom in a number of locales the pair currently enjoys together.
Sometimes, this biker and hiker-cum-writer seeks solitude in high-alpine environs. Author of “The Best Summit Hikes in Colorado,” he appreciates the restorative peace of wilderness, away from foothills throngs-unless, of course, you’re talking about bagging fourteeners, which has become a crowded pastime in its own right.
While Dziezynski is but one individual, the multiple ways he uses Colorado’s public lands demonstrates the challenge in managing for different user experiences and expectations. Hikers don’t like sharing trails with horses and mountain bikes. Dog lovers yearn for more places where their pups can romp off-leash. Non-dog folk worry about encounters with pets along a narrow trail. Wildlife aficionados would rather not see dogs on trails at all. Fly fishermen resent flotillas of noisy rafters, who in turn don’t want power boats on peaceful stretches of river. Target shooters and ATV riders square off with campers seeking quiet, while snowmobilers skirmish with backcountry skiers as both covet powder-filled slopes and meadows for their competing versions of fun.
Colorado’s multitude of recreational users may share a passion for the outdoors, but they are driven by different sets of values, and according to Michael Manfredo, head of the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources department at Colorado State University, they don’t necessarily seek the same thing from their experiences. While some may restore their spirits while hiking or snowshoeing in a quiet, unaltered environment, others find release in downhill skiing at busy resorts or jeeping on old mining roads that lace the high country.
Manfredo’s research looks at the role of attitudes and values to yield insight into why conflicts arise over the use of natural resources. His research team believes a broad-based values shift is underway in the United States. As populations modernize, becoming more urban, educated and wealthier, Manfredo says they are moving away from a domination-oriented perspective toward nature to embrace “mutualist values.” That shift, evident in Colorado, includes viewing wildlife as having the same right to exist as humans possess and appreciating natural resources more for aesthetic-versus traditional utilitarian-values. When such a shift occurs in places where utilitarian values have long prevailed, such as Colorado, it is accompanied by sharper conflict, reflecting different generational views and urban-rural divides, Manfredo says. It can be tough policy terrain to negotiate for management agencies, which are historically oriented toward traditional values and resource development.
On top of changing values, the sheer number of fresh air-seekers pooling from a growing population naturally exert more pressure on public lands, especially in the most readily accessible areas. When their sought-after experience is marred by other users with different expectations, conflict often becomes more vociferous.
Dean Winstanley, director of Colorado State Parks, sees such conflict vividly at two of the state’s largest and busiest parks, Cherry Creek and Chatfield Reservoir. Since they were set aside more than 50 years ago, both parks have become “radically urbanized,” serving the diverse recreation needs of Denver-area residents, says Winstanley. They are especially popular among dog owners who treasure the huge expanse of designated off-leash space. But the impacts on resources, as well as conflicts among hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers, have become a headache for park managers.
To address these conflicts, the agency has developed a management plan for each park, paying attention to input solicited regularly from various users. Trail crews, funded by park entrance fees, post signs and use other forms of visitor education to head off potential conflicts, but these simple methods don’t always work, says Winstanley. At Cherry Creek, for example, fences are being erected to demarcate off-leash areas for dogs when signs have been ignored. In some instances, Winstanley says trained facilitators have been called in to help achieve the compromises necessary for solutions.
For managers of federal public lands, four-legged friends are less of an issue than conflicts between motorized and non-motorized users. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have identified unmanaged motorized recreation as the biggest threat to public lands nationally, says Aaron Clark, recreation campaign director for the Southern Rockies Conservation Alliance. The alliance coordinates 26 Colorado organizations’ efforts to promote better public lands travel management within the state. The organization’s goal is not to remove motorized vehicles, says Clark. “Our main goal is to put off-road vehicles into places that are sustainable, away from sensitive species and habitats and where they don’t overwhelm the resource for other visitors.”
When a four-wheeler encounters a hiker, it’s inconsequential for the motorized user, Clark notes. But the noise and odor of a single vehicle, let alone a fleet of them, can completely alter a hiker’s experience in a way that even horses or mountain bikes do not. The only way to address that impact may be separating uses, says Clark. “You simply have an inherent incompatibility that you cannot mitigate.”
Despite the fact that motorized users constitute only 10 to 15 percent of total recreation users on Colorado public lands, they have access to 80 percent of that space, says Clark. The problem is “an ocean of motorized use on our public lands with islands of quiet. Our public lands should offer the opposite.”
Achieving such a goal bucks historic trends in federal land management, Clark acknowledges. “The original goal was to create access,” he says. But decades ago, motorized recreational vehicles weren’t a presence to be reckoned with. “Now, the mere driving of a vehicle has become recreation.”
A 15-year-old project at Vail Pass is an oft-heralded success story for overcoming the motorized/non-motorized impasse. Responding to rising tensions among winter sports enthusiasts of various stripes, the Forest Service assembled a group of concerned citizens, some with economic interests at the pass, in the mid-1990s. The Vail Pass Task Force has since become a model for addressing user conflicts, according to Chuck Ogilby, former president of the task force. Ogilby, who is co-owner of the Shrine Mountain Inn atop Vail Pass and a board member of the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association-a system of 29 backcountry huts in the Colorado Rockies connected by 350 miles of trails-helped spearhead the task force effort.
In addition to cross-country skiers, snowshoers and a growing number of snowmobiles with the capacity to push ever farther into stashes of deep powder, there was a commercial helicopter operator, a commercial snow cat service and private snow cats competing for space on the 55,000-acre winter recreation area at Vail Pass. “The non-motorized group was really frustrated,” says Ogilby, and they beseeched the Forest Service to cordon off some portion of the area from the whine of engines that marred their backcountry experience. It was not uncommon for cross-country skiers and snowmobilers to get into yelling matches in the parking lot, a flashpoint for conflict as users funneled through the same narrow access point to their winter playground.
In the case of Vail Pass, separating use areas has proved the key to reducing conflict. The task force’s efforts led to the delineation of areas for motorized and non-motorized users, including trails as well as large, open play areas. “It took a long time,” Ogilby says. “It was painful.”
Initially, compliance was voluntary. Enforcement was non-existent until the advent of a federal fee demonstration program during the 1997-98 season, the first such winter project on the White River National Forest. The purpose of the program is to collect fees-currently $6 per person per day-that help maintain and manage heavily used recreation areas while enhancing visitor experiences.
The program’s success at Vail Pass is partially due to the way user fees were allocated. Half were spent on enforcing the rules, including fines for closure violations; the other half were spent on grooming motorized trails. “There was equal value perceived for both groups,” says Ogilby.
Despite growing numbers of snowmobiles in recent years-including the advent of hybrid “sled-skiers,” who access more remote backcountry skiing terrain via machine-the situation at Vail Pass “gets better every year,” says Ogilby. Improved signage results in fewer altercations, and he says, “Everybody is getting more and more used to the program.”
Segregating use has been implemented in other settings as well. At Bestasso Open Space west of Boulder where Dziezynski likes to mountain bike, Saturdays and Wednesdays are reserved exclusively for hikers. That removes their anxiety over encounters with bikes hurtling down the single track. But no days are set aside just for bikers-not the fairest of solutions in Dziezynski’s view. He would like the freedom to ride at higher speeds without worrying about scaring-or barreling into-a hiker in his path.
Sometimes mixed approaches don’t work. At Richmond Ridge, a stretch of Forest Service land on the back side of Aspen Mountain, two sets of powderhounds are holding out for the long-awaited release of the White River National Forest travel management plan to learn which group will prevail. Sled-skiers want the right to use their own snowmobiles to access prime terrain that skiers with Aspen Mountain Powder Tours currently enjoy. The tour ferries skiers via $350 snowcat excursions made possible through a permit arrangement with the Forest Service, an arrangement the sled-skiers decry as an exclusive and unfair use of public land.
Efforts to achieve agreement between user groups were not successful, says Rich Doak, recreation, heritage and wilderness officer for the White River National Forest, who does not foresee a compromise. Such an impasse is the least desirable scenario, he admits, when his agency is forced to sit in the middle and make a decision for one side or another. “It’s always better when we can bring two opposing sides together and get them to talk,” but users “must be willing to bend and flex.”
The White River National Forest’s travel management plan, expected in early 2011, attempts to create high-quality recreation experiences for particular sets of users in specific areas, says Doak. For example, if off-road vehicle riders are privileged in an area, trails and campsites will be designed around their needs. Hikers and non-motorized campers won’t be excluded, but their interests will be secondary. Communicating where to go to attain a desired experience will be essential in creating the best possible recreational opportunities for diverse sets of users, Doak says. “The key is not to set up false expectations.”
If hikers know they may encounter horses or mountain bikes or dogs off leash, they are less likely to be upset. Sometimes, signs can accomplish that task. Other times, rangers or other on-site personnel in addition to permitting systems that limit visitors and fund enforcement and maintenance are necessary.
Katie Stevens, manager of the BLM’s McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area near Fruita, believes the fee-based permit system currently sought by the agency for weekend use on the popular Ruby-Horsethief section of the Colorado River will improve the user experience there. Currently, too many people are vying for limited space. The 20-mile stretch of river between Loma and the Colorado-Utah state line saw more than 20,000 user days and more than 18,000 nights of camping in 2009. Multiple groups converge on the same campsites, human and dog waste pollutes fragile riparian habitat, and mature cottonwood galleries along the river have been lost to unattended campfires.
The BLM’s management goal for the area is to provide an immersed-in-nature experience that reduces stress and encourages environmental sensitivity for boaters-a near-impossible task with too much use and too little oversight. The proposed $7 per-person permit fee will go a long way toward enabling Stevens’ staff to facilitate the restorative experience most users seek.
Not everyone supports using fees to regulate use and finance management of public lands. According to Kitty Benzar, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, the public lands agencies already have sufficient budgets to do their job. She implies that the extra funds are being used to “overdevelop and urbanize our public lands.” And while she’s not opposed to using a permit system to limit use in popular areas, such permitting shouldn’t be determined monetarily or certain users will be displaced for the wrong reasons: “[It] undermines the entire concept of public lands where everyone has access and is welcome.”
While many outdoor recreation enthusiasts may find more structure, rules and fees contrary to their desire for a “natural experience,” the fact is that Colorado’s public lands are already in danger of being loved too much. And, says Winstanley, “It’s only going to get more complicated.”
Jay Heeter, who coordinates the Backcountry Snowsports Initiative for the Colorado Mountain Club, says, “The biggest necessity is a willingness to see one another’s point of view. We all love to use these lands. The question is, how do we define the greatest good for the greatest number of people?”
To preserve a future for recreation, that question must be broadened for the benefit of Colorado’s incredible recreational resources themselves. Ultimately, if those resources are not well-managed, they may not be in a condition for users down the road to enjoy, no matter what their preferred activity may be.