The pandemic has put an extraordinary strain on Colorado’s outdoor spaces. Our state’s mountains, trails, parks and back roads were flooded with an unprecedented number of visitors last year as people sought out the healing power of nature.
Unfortunately, nature now needs to heal from the crushing crowds who damaged natural resources in a variety of ways.
Colorado’s 42 state parks certainly felt the effects of record crowds including many newcomers to the outdoors who were unfamiliar with etiquette on trails, in campgrounds and in natural areas.
Unprecedented traffic led to people parking outside of full lots and damaging green spaces. Some park guests disposed of burning coals from grills by tossing them in dumpsters, causing fires. Large parties on shorelines led to illegal drinking and swimming and, sadly, several drownings.
In 2019, Colorado’s state parks had just over 15 million visitors. In 2020, there were more than 19 million visitors. In July alone there were more than 1 million visitors than the previous year.
Already in 2021, visitation to our state parks is trending above last year and all signs point to another busy summer.
With so much strain on our parks, state park managers amped up efforts to educate visitors on the importance of practicing “Leave No Trace” (LNT) principles to protect our natural resources for future generations.
Volunteer Driven Change
Last year, I wrote about some of the ways state parks were coping with the issue, including volunteer trash pick-ups at Lake Pueblo State Park.
At Cheyenne Mountain State Parks, a Trail Ambassadors group was developed to reduce conflicts on the trails. And I reported on the efforts at Roxborough and Castlewood Canyon State Park to become Gold Standard designated sites by Leave No Trace.
At Barr Lake State Park northeast of Denver, Park Manager Michelle Seubert started working with her volunteers over a year ago to address some of these issues.
“With the pandemic, it really came to light why the Leave No Trace principles were so important,” she said. “We saw a huge increase in visitation, with many people not knowing how to be a good steward while outdoors. We thought it made sense to move forward and work on getting Barr Lake certified with a Gold Standard Site designation.”
Gold Standard Site designations are awarded to public recreation lands that exemplify successful Leave No Trace ethics and showcase strong organizational commitment to the promotion of outdoor skills, ethics, and stewardship in order to help preserve and protect the natural landscape for generations to come.
“Our volunteer Leave No Trace committee of four people spent over 790 hours developing and executing our LNT goals and objectives,” Seubert said. “During 2020 we met once a week for two hours coming up with our plans and ideas.”
CPW’s Roxborough and Castlewood Canyon state parks had already received Gold Standard designations with the help of their volunteers. Castlewood received its designation in 2020 after Roxborough was the first state park to receive it in 2018.
Seubert had a good model to follow in the quest to make Barr Lake the third state park in Colorado to receive the distinction.
“One of the tasks we had to tackle [to receive the Gold Standard designation] was improving our signage to really highlight the LNT principles,” Seubert said. “So we really tailored it to Barr Lake.
“All state parks have certain things in common, but each park is unique. For us, staying on the trail in the wildlife refuge is important because of our nesting raptors. That’s part of LNT’s ‘know before you go’ principle. Visitors need to know that they can’t bring their dog and go in the refuge. And you can only boat on the northern part of the lake. So it was important to tailor the LNT principles to what is happening at Barr Lake and what our current management issues are.”
Barr Lake State Park received its Gold Standard designation earlier this month. On Colorado Public Lands Day on May 15, a special ceremony was held to present a plaque to the park, followed by a fun day of volunteer projects around the park. Projects ranged from planting trees to staining boardwalks.
Castlewood Canyon, Roxborough and Barr Lake state parks acknowledge that, moving forward, the challenge will be to continue delivering the Leave No Trace message to the ever-increasing number of visitors to the parks while expanding the message to even more Colorado state parks.
Other Colorado state parks are pushing forward hoping to achieve the Gold Standard designation as well. Eleven Mile, Golden Gate Canyon and Staunton state parks are working on obtaining their designation by using special tool kits: one is a virtual kit available on the Leave No Trace website and the other is a physical tool kit containing materials, activities, equipment, documents, templates and other items to help educate the public on the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace. All of that is contained in one plastic bin that can be easily transported from place to place.
Becoming a Gold Standard
In order to be named a Gold Standard Site, the following criteria must be met:
- A history of successfully implementing Leave No Trace Outdoor skills and ethics into management, programming, outreach and education efforts at the site.
- Staff formally trained in Leave No Trace.
- Leave No Trace signage throughout trailheads, visitor centers and campgrounds as well as Leave No Trace language and messaging included in pamphlets, maps and other distributed materials for visitors,
- Leave No Trace interpretative programs including ranger talks, campfire events and trail outings for visitors.
To learn more about #CareForColorado Week, visit the CPW Instagram and CPW Facebook to help share a Care for Colorado Leave No Trace principle every day throughout the week of May 17. Conservation starts small and together we can keep Colorado colorful and our landscapes clean.
Travis Duncan is a public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Denver. Travis has lived in Colorado nearly 20 years and loves the outdoors. If you have a question, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.