It’s no secret to a lot of folks, but Colorado’s outdoors are seeing a huge increase in visitation and use during the COVID-19 pandemic. More people than ever are seeking the healing power of nature to deal with stressful and uncertain times.
Visitation at state parks continues to set records each month. In July alone, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s state parks had nearly 1 million more visitors than in July 2019.
The pressure on our outdoor spaces has been so substantial that Gov. Jared Polis declared Aug. 31-Sept. 7 as “Colorado Recreates Responsibly Week.” Multiple agencies including CPW, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service all participated in a campaign to highlight the 7 Leave No Trace Principles throughout the week in advance of a busy Labor Day weekend.
With those principles and the “recreate responsibly” campaign in mind, I spoke with a number of CPW employees and volunteers about how they’re handling the increase at their parks.
Disposing of Waste Properly
CPW Southeast Region Volunteer Coordinator Jeannette Lara began her position in March, right as the pandemic was starting. Lara said that as summer got into full swing, Lake Pueblo State Park was seeing huge visitation numbers and lots of trash left behind, a violation of the third LNT principle to “dispose of waste properly.” So she helped organize a cleanup crew of 17 volunteers on Wednesday, July 15.
“We all met in one of the parking areas and I advised everyone we’d be wearing face masks while we had an initial meeting,” Lara said. “We talked about the increased visitation the park had been seeing, as well as being safe while we worked, like wearing masks and work gloves.
“Resource Tech Shane Ewing supported us by providing garbage bags and pointing out four hot spots on a park map for us to go to.”
Lara said that in just three hours, her group picked up more than 20 bags of trash.
“I think we have a lot of new recreationists out there,” she said. “It’s wonderful, but hard on our landscape. We want more people outside. That’s what we’ve been trying for all these years.”
Now we’ve got to educate the new park visitors and encourage them to get involved in keeping our outdoors as pristine as possible.
“The simplest way people can help is to grab a plastic bag and take a walk around your neighborhood park, or your local state park [and pick up trash],” Lara said. “Any help is help.”
Laura Leyba was one of the volunteers at the July cleanup who has begun going to the park once a week to help out.
“I go into the Visitors Center and ask the people working there: ‘Where are the problem areas?’ “ Leyba said. “They circle them on the park map for me and then I go out and survey the area. If it looks pretty bad, I get down and start picking up trash.”
Cheyenne Mountain State Park Senior Ranger Jason Hagan said his park was seeing problems with people being rude to each other on trails, violating the seventh LNT principle to “be considerate of other visitors.”
“We were having a lot of user conflicts between mountain bikers and hikers,” Hagan said. “Bikers going too fast. Hikers not getting out of the way. And people just generally being jerks to each other.”
Hagan thought: “What if we get an increased presence on our trails by having folks . . . out there leading by example on how to be good stewards on the trails.”
On June 27, Hagan organized an afternoon training for the fledgling Cheyenne Mountain Trail Ambassadors to set expectations for how the group would interact with visitors to the park.
“We wanted to be clear that they weren’t a law enforcement entity,” Hagan said. “It’s mostly about having an increased presence, leading by example and showing people how to be courteous riders and hikers. It goes a long way.”
Since that initial training, around 20 trail ambassadors have put in 300 hours and made nearly 400 contacts with people, talking about proper trail etiquette and sharing Leave No Trace principles.
The Power of Volunteers
Other folks have been giving back during the pandemic by helping with trail maintenance at CPW parks.
Rachel Linger became a newly-minted crew leader with Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC) by working on a re-route of the Raccoon Trail near Panorama Point at Golden Gate Canyon State Park on Friday, Aug. 14.
“Within the past few years, I felt the need to volunteer in some capacity,” Linger said. “I tried a couple things that didn’t fit. When I found trail work, I thought: ‘This is definitely my deal.’
“I love being outside. I love that we have so many trails that are freely accessible. It’s just not possible to maintain all of the trails that are out there on government budgets. It’s rewarding to give back and build new trails that are sustainable.”
Linger said that part of being a crew leader was giving a safety talk at the beginning of each project. Pre-pandemic, the safety talk focused exclusively on tool safety, environmental safety, and site-specific hazards like poison ivy or cliffs in the area.
“Now, we talk more about social distancing, maintaining that six feet distance between workers,’ Linger said. “And everyone is masked most of the day. We have a policy with VOC, if you need to take off your mask and are more than six feet away, you can. If you’re hot and need water, move away from other people. Hand sanitizer and wipes are provided and some volunteers figured out how to make hands-free washing and water bottle stations. And we always wear work gloves when working with tools anyway.”
Linger spoke about how rewarding it has been to volunteer her time doing trail work.
“People go out all the time and hike or ride bikes, or ride horses, or utilize trails and don’t think about how the trails got there and who maintains them,” Linger said. “A lot of the work is done by volunteers. I would just encourage anyone who loves the great outdoors and enjoys the trails to come out for an afternoon or a weekend once a year. That’s so helpful and meaningful. It’s something that I believe in.”
Mike Thomas has been volunteering with CPW for 5 years and visiting Roxborough State Park for 20 years. When he would see volunteers “doing their thing, I’d tell myself, when I retire from work I’ll become a volunteer there. I made that happen and have loved it ever since.”
Thomas played a big part in helping Roxborough and Castlewood Canyon state parks get gold star certification from Leave No Trace, so he knows about the impacts the parks are seeing.
He said that a lot of trash is being left at our state parks.
“Some you can tell has been deliberately hidden or tossed into a bush so nobody can see it.”
And at Roxborough, traveling off trail has become an issue.
“Maybe it’s too crowded or maybe it’s folks trying to get around people,” Thomas said. “And some people, we know they’re peeling off trying to explore places they want to see. That’s a big deal because a lot of our parks are stay-on-the-trail type parks because of nature and wildlife.
“Especially at Roxborough. And we’re seeing hikers not thinking about others around them and how their behavior is affecting others. Like being loud when there might be bird watchers around. It’s disturbing the peace people want to get when they come to their state parks.”
I’ve certainly seen my share of some of the Leave No Trace principles being violated over the past few months, but am encouraged by those mentioned here who are helping make and share positive changes. I decided to take Laura Leyba’s words to heart and begin carrying extra garbage bags with me and in my vehicle when I head outside.
For those who’d like to volunteer with CPW, check out the Volunteer page on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website.
Follow #CareForColorado on social media to see posts from around the state with tips on how to care for our state and recreate responsibly.
Travis Duncan is a public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Denver. Travis has lived in Colorado more than 20 years and loves the outdoors. If you have a question, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org