The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Royal Gorge Field Office is accepting public comments on alternatives for camping and travel management on approximately 38,000 acres of BLM public land in Chaffee County. BLM reports that this planning effort is being conducted since camping demand has increased in the past decade and that the planning effort is in alignment with the Chaffee County “Recreation in Balance” goals1.
There have been significant concerns raised about the “Recreation in Balance” Report. These concerns include the obvious bias in surveys that were, the lack of credible data analysis, and conflicts of interest in the funding and execution of this report. To clarify, the “Recreation in Balance” study was funded in part with our Chaffee County Common Ground taxpayer money. The Common Ground Advisory Committee is chaired by Cindy Williams2, who is also co-lead of Envision Chaffee with Greg Felt, who as Chaffee County Commissioner approves the Common Ground grants.
The County Conflict of Interest (COI) policy3 expressly prohibits an “Official” (defined as an elected official or County Board member) from participating in the discussion, review, or approval of support of “an organization or agency, whether or not it is operated for profit, in which such persons serve as an owner, co-owner, partner, shareholder (excluding a minority interest), officer, director, agent or employee or candidate for employment”. For reasons not transparent to the general public, these conflict of interest rules have apparently been waived for the Envision Chaffee co-leads Greg Felt and Cindy Williams.
Of concern also is the lack of transparency in how much funding Envision Chaffee has received, or how it has been expended, as there is no public reporting of their finances. A request I submitted to Commissioner Greg Felt to release Envision Chaffee’s financial reports, was referred by him to Cindy Williams, who ignored it. Subsequent Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) requests to Chaffee County and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) flagged even more concerns. The CORA request to CPW revealed that some of the key findings in the “Recreation in Balance” plan regarding wildlife impacts were determined in mostly non-public meetings by a small group of six people, led by Cindy Williams, the majority of who had no expertise in wildlife species management.
Multiple local recreation groups, concerned about the impact this misinformation could have on recreation use of public lands within Chaffee County, commissioned an independent peer review of the “Recreation in Balance” study and conclusions4. County Commissioner Greg Felt responded in a letter to the editor5 to the Mountain Mail on Sept 3, 2021, with accusations of “a deliberate misinformation campaign by special interest groups” and branding the author of the peer review, Rob Roy Ramey, as “a well-known ‘scientist for hire’”.
As a scientist myself, and member of the National Academy for Engineering, I am also often called on to provide perform peer reviews, some at the request of Congress. I find it appalling that Commissioner Greg Felt, the co-lead of Envision, should label Rob Roy Ramey with this personally offensive and unjustified label rather than reading and respecting his inputs as a subject matter expert on the flawed, taxpayer funded “Recreation in Balance” study. A respectful and reasonable request from Salida Mountain Trails asking that the County Commissioners direct the recreation plan leadership team to reopen this part of the plan for further review and revision was ignored6.
Unfortunately, the alternatives prepared by BLM for managing camping on public lands are based in part on the questionable data included in the “Recreation in Balance” report. Another huge flaw in both the BLM and Envision Chaffee analysis on the use of public lands is also the assumption that camping is for “recreational” purposes. Sadly, in Chaffee County rising property values and the scarcity of affordable long-term rentals have driven much of our workforce into a “nomadic” situation relying on camping on public lands for housing.
The BLM is opening up the opportunity for public comment on alternatives for camping on public lands in Chaffee County. Comments can be submitted at https://eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/2012291/510 before the deadline at the end of January. I have worked before with many government organizations and can assure you that your comments will matter and will be carefully considered by the BLM. I have shared my own submitted comments below. If you, as I am, are concerned about the dearth of workforce housing in Chaffee County and believe that all options, including camping on BLM land, should be kept open until better long-term solutions are found, I hope that you will consider submitting a comment yourself.
Alison Brown-Submitted Comments to the BLM:
A study of non-recreational camping on public lands7 by USDA shows that, in recent years, more people are living on public lands. While for some Americans living in vans, RVs, and tents is a lifestyle choice8, for many it is an economic necessity caused by rising housing prices and a shortage of affordable long-term rental properties as more owners choose the Airbnb short-term rental option. In Chaffee County, this has resulted in a critical affordable housing shortage for our local work source, many of whom hold transient jobs supporting the local recreation and hospitality industries. As a result, camping on BLM and other public lands is critically important in providing short-term housing options for many of the local workforce in Chaffee County. Combined with the surge of recreational campers we saw, escaping their pandemic-induced confinement, this is placing even more demand for campsites on BLM and other public lands in Chaffee County.
The BLM’s environmental assessment recognized that “Camping has long been a traditional use of public land and is an important part of American heritage and is often an integral part of other outdoor recreation activities9.” However, it omitted to consider in its studies, the importance of “dispersed camping” in serving as workforce housing needs rather than simply supporting outdoor recreation. Many of our local businesses are already struggling to stay open due to the housing challenges our local workforce faces. This is not the time in Chaffee County for the BLM to be considering any alternatives that curtail access to camping. Instead, the BLM should be working with local government officials and nonprofits, sensitive to the needs of our local workforce, to supplement other efforts to address the affordable housing crisis in Chaffee County10.
I have reviewed the BLM’s plan and see merit in some of the Actions laid out in Alternative D which would potentially improve the BLM camping experience by providing toilets, trash removal, and additional campsites. However, restricting camping to 48 hours (rather than the two weeks currently permitted) could further impact at-risk members of our community by causing homelessness.
Specifically, I would recommend the BLM consider adapting Alternative D to include the following recommendations: (1) include provision for a long term camp manager at each of the identified locations, who can assist in collecting fees, and maintaining the camping area in good order; (2) use fees and donations to provide additional services at all campsites including toilets, trash removal, and fire rings and wells, and (3) work with local nonprofits to increase access to BLM lands by adding additional campsites and improving road access to more areas where camping can be conducted.
With the critical housing shortage and the increase in the nomadic workforce in Chaffee County, this is not the time for the BLM to be curtailing camping in public lands. I hope that the BLM will consider the needs of the community, beyond simple recreational uses, in maximizing the public benefit of the lands they steward.
Alison Brown, PhD
Editor’s note: Alison Brown is an investor and stockholder of Ark Valley Voice. She has no control over editorial content.