As recreation surges, Colorado State Land Board pilots program for designated public campsites in Chaffee County
The Colorado State Land Board designated 14 new campsites on its 3,400-acre parcel in the Fourmile Recreation Management Area in Chaffee County. A pandemic-driven surge in outdoor recreation resulting in resource damage prompted the project.
“We are dealing with a new form of recreation,” said Abe Medina, Recreation Manager for the State Land Board, who said that campers previously used to pitch a few tents during the hunting season but now arrive all summer long with big RVs, multiple vehicles, toy haulers, four-wheelers and side-by-sides.
Dozens of self-made, non-designated campsites and associated spur roads have destroyed acres of vegetation. Visitors previously made dangerous bonfires in the middle of grassy meadows, and they have built racetracks and jumps for riding play. “It’s much more intensive use. It grew to the point that we had to do something,” Medina said.
The State Land Board is the second-largest landowner in the state. Commonly known as “school sections,” trust land parcels total nearly 3 million acres and are located throughout the state, including 16,600 acres in Chaffee County. The sections were granted by the federal government at statehood to produce revenue for public institutions. More than $2 billion has been raised in the past 15 years, mainly to fund Colorado’s BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) program. Other public institutions, such as the state penitentiary system, are also beneficiaries.
The State Land Board is responsible for profitable land management, which it achieves through leasing lands to agricultural operators and others. Medina said that grazing in Chubb Park has become more difficult as the long-time lessee, a Chaffee County rancher, has a hard time driving cows onto the property. Cattle won’t drink from water tanks that are surrounded by campers who have chased calves with off-road vehicles and damaged the irrigation system.
The solution for compatible, mixed-use land management at this site is to offer camping in 14 designated sites, each with a numbered site post and metal fire ring. Posted signs convey the rules.
“We considered closing the area to camping but recognize that will just push people onto surrounding lands that are also under pressure, so we decided to try to enable camping to continue with new rules and signage,” Medina said.
The trust land parcel in Chubb Park is surrounded by National Forest in the 100,000-acre Fourmile Recreation Area, which includes Bureau of Land Management property near the towns of Buena Vista and Salida.
Medina collaborated with other land managers through a local process facilitated by Envision Chaffee County, to implement the All Lands Camping strategy that is outlined in the Chaffee County Outdoor Recreation Management Plan. The goal is to provide high-quality, low-impact camping opportunities in response to resident concerns about camping growth without sufficient management such as trash, human waste, declining experience quality and the potential for human caused wildfire sparking from user-created campfire rings.
The county plan endorses solutions, such as the project in Chubb Park by the State Land Board, to retain the quality of outdoor experiences, protect resources such as clean water, and ensure the recreation-based economy is sustainable. New signs and campsites were paid for by the State Land Board, with support from the Chaffee County Visitors Bureau, the National Forest Foundation and a mini-grant from Chaffee Common Ground.
A Southwest Conservation Corps crew completed the majority of the work in early May, and Chaffee Rec Adopters hosted a collaborative volunteer event to finish the project in early June.
Camping remains free and first-come at Chubb Park this year. Medina said a fee is likely in the future and that, if the Chubb Park model is successful, designated camping could be used on additional school parcels such as Waunita Reservoir near Tomichi Dome. “We want to be part of the regional conversation as a lot of communities need help offering more sustainable camping,” he said.