COVID-19 massively increased workload for Eagle County’s Front Country Rangers
Pandemic brought many more campers to the White River National Forest
In a year where a global pandemic altered every aspect of our lives, people regularly reached the point when they couldn’t abide one more weekend spent at home.
But vacation options were limited, with one notable exception. The great outdoors wasn’t subject to COVID-19 closures. Many visitors found the scenery change and wide open spaces they craved in the White River Forest — but they left behind some unfortunate evidence of their discovery.
Fortunately, however, Eagle County’s Front Country Ranger Program was positioned to address the issue.
The program is a local government partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to provide additional patrol services for the national forest. With funding from Eagle County and various municipalities, the Forest Service maintained a team of five rangers to tackle five primary priorities::
- Garbage and abandoned property
- Unattended Fires and compliance with fire restrictions
- Monitoring residential camps
- Illegal access prevention
- Illegal dispersed camping
During a presentation this week, Paula Peterson of the Eagle/Holy Cross Ranger District shared 2020 program highlights with members of the Eagle County Board of Commissioners and made a pitch to expand the ranger program for 2021.
“We had a very successful and very busy 2020 program,” said Peterson. “We did see an enormous increase in use.”
There was a dangerous dynamic in play last year as more people flocked to the forest at a time when fire danger was extremely high. Peterson said fire patrol efforts were a top priority for the Front Country Rangers.
The crew found and extinguished 32 unattended fires last year and extinguished six attended campfires that were burning in violation of restrictions. They also dismantled 279 rock fire rings located in dispersed camping areas and posted numerous temporary signs to alert campers about fire restrictions.
“We spend lot of time and thousands of miles spreading the fire suppression message,” Peterson said.
She noted the Homestake area was the busiest part of the forest for the Front Country Rangers because people trying out camping for the first time, especially car camping, often found their way to dispersed sites in that area.
“Homestake is kind of our green level of camping here,” she said.
Some of those sites had people camping in areas where the Forest Service didn’t want them pitching tents. For example, Peterson said rangers closed sites within 100 feet of water to protect sensitive riparian areas. Eventually, the ranger crew permanently closed 39 dispersed sites and installed 30 new signs to educate people about where not to camp.
During the course of last summer, Peterson said rangers visited 1,958 individual dispersed campsites and trailheads — a 239% increase over 2019 figures. Rangers contacted 351 individuals, an increase of 170% over 2019. They handed out 182 educational notes, 15 warnings and one citation.
Front Country Rangers are tasked with taking care of garbage and human waste left behind by campers. They did a lot of that in 2020.
Peterson said rangers found more than 40 human waste piles and 10 homemade toilets last summer. More than 70 dog waste bags were found on trails and at trailheads. To combat the problem, the rangers handed out more than 300 human waste bags to campers and the Forest Service stepped up its vault toilet pumping at 12 sites.
Rangers also hauled out more than 5,000 pounds of garbage. “We did a lot of picking up after people,” Peterson said.
But trash and waste weren’t the only things that campers left behind this summer. In many instances, they left their whole camp.
“Anecdotally, we believe some visitors decided to leave their campers in place rather than drive them home to the Front Range each week,” said Peterson. “We saw the same RVs and campers in place in many campsites for weeks at a time.”
Crews found numerous abandoned tents, kayaks and even a sailboat on a trailer. An illegal cabin along Red and White Road was also discovered.
Beyond their work at dispersed sites, the Front Country Rangers tackled improvements at the Yeoman, Fulford, and Sweetwater campgrounds and regular patrols at the East Vail Wilderness trails.
The total cost for the 2020 program was $142,240. Looking ahead to 2021, Peterson said the Forest Service is estimating a program cost of $120,000 to provide a four-person ranger crew. But she pitched another option to the commissioners — a $160,000 program to provide a seven-person crew.
“If additional funds were considered, we would of course raise our hand and use it wisely,” Peterson said.
Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll noted there has been wide support from local towns for the Front Country Ranger program.
“For the most part, I think the municipalities are willing to do something in addition to what we have been doing,” Shroll said. “If ever there was a year not to cut it back it’s at a time when the rest of the world is shut down and everyone goes camping.”
The commissioners agreed. They stated their support for the Front Country Rangers as a great partnership with the Forest Service.
“Any time you see that you can do more with these programs, we want to know about that,” Commissioner Matt Scherr said.
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UPDATE: Both westbound lanes and one eastbound lane of Interstate 70, according to a 12:20 a.m. update from Garfield County.