The American west has some of the most spectacular public lands in the country, including national parks and forests, bureau of land management areas, state parks, and wildlife preserves. As more and more Americans head into the mountains to recreate and explore, the strain on public lands continues to increase. We all have a role to play in helping manage this impact, both directly through our own activity and through advocacy and support at higher levels. Here’s an overview of the increasing strain on our public lands, along with 6 tips to help care for these lands.
Caring for Public Lands is More Important Than Ever
The Colorado fourteeners are a good example of the twin issues of growing use and growing impact. In 2016, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative estimated 311,000 hikers climbed the 58 peaks. Two years later in 2018, that reached 353,000. The 2020 numbers, soon to come out, are expected to be set a new record again. As more people climb the peaks, issues with their impact are also increasing.
Dozens of 14ers receive a poor grade for their trail sustainability, with things getting worse as thousands use them anyways and degrade slopes. Trailhead parking lots are woefully inadequate for the crowds, causing cars to park on alpine tundra. New disperse camping sites continue to appear, with more areas closed for restoration each year. With the increased impact, there is concern about potentially closing access to Mount Democrat, Lincoln and Cameron, as well as discussion about potential permit requirements or parking fees.
It’s not just Colorado and the 14ers – outdoor recreation on public land is increasing all over this nation. While getting outside is a good thing, we have to work together to manage our shared impact. Here are 6 things you can do to help preserve and care for public lands for future generations to come.
1) Always Practice Leave No Trace Outdoor Ethics.
The most direct way you can care for public lands is to always practice Leave No Trace outdoor ethics. These 7 principles and the practices they include ensure the mountains stay in the same or better conditions than you found them. If everyone practiced LNT, the issue of increasing use would be much smaller and easier to deal with. By practicing them yourself, you become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. The 7 principles include:
- Plan ahead and prepare.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
- Dispose of waste properly.
- Leave what you find.
- Minimize campfire impact.
- Respect wildlife.
- Be considerate of others in the outdoors.
Learn more about Leave No Trace practices for mountains in my 14er guide chapter on the subject – click here.
2) Visit Popular Public Lands on 'Off Days.'
If you’ve been to the mountains at a wide variety of times, you’ve probably noticed a pattern in the crowds, both weekly and seasonally. Hiking and camping destinations are busiest during the summer months of July and August, and during weekends and holidays. They are considerably less busy during the late spring and early fall months, as well as weekdays. If you want to hike or climb a popular peak, but don’t want to contribute to congestion on the summit, consider visiting during an “off day” like a Wednesday in early September. You’ll have a better experience yourself, and reduce congestion for those there in the summer too.
3) Buy a Colorado Search & Rescue Card (COSAR).
With growing numbers of hikers comes a growing number of search and rescue missions to go after them when something goes wrong. Colorado’s SAR teams are largely volunteer, providing services to anyone in need without a bill of any kind. They rely largely on state support and fundraising to do their job. Buying a Colorado Search and Rescue Card (Known as a COSAR card) ensures that local SAR teams can receive funding and reimbursement if they rescue you. It helps ensure you aren’t costing them precious resources if rescued, and is worth the investment at just $3/year. Click here to learn more or buy a card.
4) Visit Less Commonly Visited Public Lands.
While most climbers focus on the 58 fourteeners, they forget that Colorado is home to more than 650 thirteeners, all worthy climbs. The same is true in all fifty states. There are thousands of state parks, wildlife areas, national forests, and other hidden gems that don’t see much traffic compared to national parks and monuments. Even comparing the 14ers, just 8 of the peaks represent more than 50% of all traffic on the peaks. To help reduce congestion, try taking the road less travelled to one of these less commonly visited public lands.
5) If You See Something Wrong, Do Something Right.
Walking along a trail, or sitting in your campsite, a time may come when you see major impacts happening right in front of you. It may be an accident, someone doing something they clearly did not know was wrong, like washing dishes in a stream or walking with an unleashed dog where prohibited. It could also be clearly intentionally, being so obviously damaging that they should know better, like ignoring restoration area closures, hunting out of season, or committing vandalism.
In any situation, there’s a better option than putting your head down and walking on by. The specifics depends on the context If the situation does not seem tense, consider asking the person if they know of the impact of their action, and explain a different way to do it. If the situation is serious, take photos and report the violation to the appropriate authorities. Our public lands are ours to protect – so when you see something wrong, do something right.
6) Advocate for Policy that Supports Public Lands
Caring for public lands doesn’t stop when we take off our hiking boots. Join and support civic organizations like the Sierra Club, Colorado Mountain Club, or Access Fund that help protect public lands. Write to your legislators about public land issues, demanding greater funding and support for trail maintenance, conservation, education and advocacy. Vote and support candidates who pledge to protect and expand public lands, and those with a track record for these actions in the past.
Individual action alone isn’t enough to solve the issue of growing use and impact on public lands. Caring for public lands requires policies and programs to get the job done. With recent victories like the Great American Outdoors Act, now is the time to build on the momentum for public lands and continue advocating for more effective public policy.
Caring for Public Lands: Now You Know!
As the mountains and other public lands get busier and busier, it’s on each and every one of us to do our part. It starts with practicing leave no trace ethics, choosing the right time and location to avoid contributing to crowds. It also sometimes requires extra action, like buying a COSAR card, saying something when we see something, and advocating for pro-public lands policy. Together, we can help ensure these mountains and rivers are still pristine for our grandchildren, and theirs. Learn more about conserving the fourteeners specifically at the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative website here.