(Photo Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

With few places to go, Colorado’s parks and trails seeing record crowds, destruction and budget cuts

The coronavirus is causing an interesting problem for Colorado’s great outdoors. With few places to go, Coloradoans are flocking to parks and trails putting a strain on park managers to keep visitors safe and the parks maintained. All this comes at a time as their budgets are expected to be cut.

“Annectodataly we are hearing that some places are seeing a 200% increase in use,” said Jennifer Peterson, executive director of Rocky Mountain Field Institute. During a normal year RMFI helps organize and facilitate stewardship of trails and open spaces with volunteers across southern Colorado. However, as with many organizations dealing with COVID-19, RMFI has had to shift their model.

“Now is not the time to go backwards on trail maintenance and stewardship,” said Peterson. But without volunteers, RMFI’s job is more challenging. They’ve been labeled an essential business and have 18 staff deployed throughout the greater Colorado Springs area to help lessen the load on parks and trails.

Other groups are noticing increased trail traffic as well.

“The amount of people that are out walking and biking and running have really increased dramatically,” said Mike Sexton of Pueblo Parks and Recreation.

“We always have busy parks, however our team of park rangers are clearly seeing an increase,” said Scott Abbott, of the Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Services department. But for Abbott and his department, busy trails and high usage is nothing new. Their job, as Abbott says, is to protect parks from people, people from the parks, and occasionally, people from people.

The increased usage is making certain aspects of this job more challenging. “Our maintenance has had a need to be increased,” said Abbott, who’s rangers have reported increased trash at trailheads and more after hours usage.

“We are seeing not only increased use, but increased irresponsible usage– increased trash, dogs off leash, a lot of user conflicts, no one social distancing, and massive parking violations,” said Petterson, echoing Abbott’s sentiment. “With 18 staff we can’t be everywhere,” continued Peterson, “My guess is [trails] will suffer.”

Managers are prepared for the people, though. “Day use has been up but not overwhelming,” said Bill Vogrin, an information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

State park campgrounds regularly book up six months in advance, according to Vogrin, and it’s no different this year.

On Memorial day weekend, when rangers had to close the gates to Lake Pueblo State Park for several hours due to high usage, the park was ready to accommodate people. In 2018, 2.1 million people visited the park.

While parks, open spaces, and trails across the state have been able to accommodate users, some are concerned about the long term impacts that COVID-19 could have. For RMFI, there is concern that revenue could dry up. RFMI receives funding from some Colorado Springs sales taxes. Applications for funding from one such source, LART– the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax, sometimes called the tourist tax, have already been placed on hold for 2021. “They are predicting 50%–60 % reduction in LART revenue because not many people are flocking to hotels or renting cars,” said Peterson.

“I’m not so worried about 2020, it’s 2021 and 2022 that are going to be much more problematic,” said Peterson. This sentiment is a reflection of the unstable economic waters we
are now in, and stretches across the private and public sector.

“Next year our budget is going to take a hit,” said Sexton. “Parks are always the ones that feel the cuts the earliest.” The Pueblo Parks Department is feeling the strain from COVID-19 as they’ve been forced into a hiring furlough.

According to Sexton, they’re already down 4 or 5 caretakers, so more senior members of the department have been required to step in and help with day-to-day maintenance.

Pueblo Parks also lost the ability to organize volunteer workdays, but the community is still finding ways to be involved.

Of the 27 miles of trails under the stewardship of the department, almost all of them have been adopted by community members who patrol and keep the trails clean, Sexton says. This has been very helpful in handling the influx of trash that the crowds bring.

“We’ve been asked to cut back at a 15% rate across my division to hold onto a percentage of our budget in preparation,” said Abbott. However he stresses that they’ll keep doing their job and not let uncertainty hinder them from bringing their services to the public.“Worrying about what may or may not be coming is not in our culture right now.”

While park managers encourage visitors to adhere to COVID-19 safety standards, they also want visitors to follow rules of the trail, avoid muddy trails, not cut switchbacks and be respectful of nature and visitors.

Of course, there is also a silver lining to all this. “It’s a wonderful thing that so many people are getting out onto the trails and a lot of these folks are first time users,” said Peterson. COVID-19 is giving people an opportunity to explore new areas close to home, and according to Peterson and Abbott, many new users are accessing public spaces.

As Vogrin said, “We welcome people coming into our parks and experiencing nature and experiencing all that Colorado has to offer, it’s a great thing.”

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