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WRNF may stake future funding on this year’s low campground visitation

Dennis Webb

In a summer of drought and fire, visitation at campgrounds in the White River National Forest is half of normal.

Forest visitation as a whole probably also is down about 50 percent, said WRNF spokeswoman Sue Froeschle.

And the decrease is occurring in a particularly bad year, because the WRNF is currently the subject of a recreation survey that will determine future budgeting.

“Our survey numbers will show far much less recreational use than we normally have,” said Froeschle.

The survey is conducted every five years. Forest Service officials are worried that budgeting based on a year in which extraordinary conditions reduce recreational use will make it hard to cover the costs associated with visitorship once it returns to normal.

Officials hope to receive some special consideration because of this season’s unusual nature.

The WRNF, like national forests elsewhere in Colorado and elsewhere in the West, has been hard-hit by drought and wildfire this year. Froeschle said low reservoirs have made it hard to put boats in the water and have diminished use of nearby campgrounds.

In the meantime, prospective campers also face bans on campfires and other fire restrictions, and frequently smoky skies due to wildfires.

The WRNF has closed some trails, roads and campgrounds due to fires, including the Coal Seam Fire in the Glenwood Springs area, the Spring Creek Fire north of New Castle, and the East Meadow Creek Fire off the Buford Road.

In addition, the size and destructive nature of many Colorado wildfires – Coal Seam burned down 29 homes and consumed some 12,000 acres – has scared off many tourists from visiting the state’s forests and other attractions.

The fires also are putting a strain on forest staffing and forcing reductions in some non-firefighting-related programs, because the Forest Service already has used up its firefighting budget for the fiscal year.

Froeschle said the low campground usage also will impact the concessionaires who run them and get a percentage of profits.

Colorado’s Pike National Forest shut down from June 10 until today because of the state’s largest wildfire in history, the Hayman Fire.

The WRNF has an economic impact on area communities that rely on tourism, and Froeschle said a forestwide closure would be only a last resort that officials want to avoid.

“We would think long and hard before closing the forest. We probably would try to eliminate activities before going to closures,” she said.

Indeed, hikers, outfitters and others already are enduring restrictions in forest uses in some areas because of the fires. Froeschle said that outfitters don’t necessarily like the closures, but realize the necessity of them.

“They certainly understand, and that’s the risk of doing business,” she said.

She said many people planning to come to the area are calling the Forest Service to find out what they can and can’t do, and are generally understanding about the limitations on use.

“It’s pretty apparent when there’s smoke in the sky, what’s going on,” she said.

Not all the restrictions may be so obvious in terms of need. For example, the No Name Creek Trail in Glenwood Canyon has remained closed more than a month after the outbreak of the Coal Seam Fire, and long after smoke stopped being visible up the creek valley.

But the fire is not completely out, and Froeschle said the closure is needed because crews are still using the trail to access the fire.

She said officers are monitoring closed trails, roads and such to enforce the rules. The purpose is partly educational, and “most people are very, very responsive” to the Forest Service’s request for compliance, Froeschle said. However, a fine is likely to result in case of violations.

Meanwhile, the WRNF also is trying to educate forest users about the fire danger and restrictions, through the distribution of posters at venues such as this weekend’s Burning Mountain Festival in New Castle.

It reads, “If you don’t like camping without a campfire, think about camping without a forest,” Froeschle said.


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