As recreation surges, a Colorado State Land Board pilot program for designated public campsites in Chaffee County
The Colorado State Land Board has designated 14 new campsites on its 3,400-acre parcel in the Fourmile Recreation Management Area in Chaffee County. The need for more sites became apparent when the COVID-19 pandemic-driven surge in outdoor recreation resulted in resource damage.
“We are dealing with a new form of recreation,” said Abe Medina, Recreation Manager for the State Land Board. He explains that campers previously used to pitch a few tents during the hunting season. “But now [they] arrive all summer long with big RVs, multiple vehicles, toy haulers, four-wheelers and side-by-sides.”
As the Chaffee Recreation Adopters group began to monitor campsites across the county last year, they documented mounting damage. Dozens of self-made, non-designated campsites and associated spur roads destroyed acres of vegetation. The State Land Board has noted that visitors 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,” said Medina.
The State Land Board is the second-largest landowner in the state. Trust land parcels commonly known as “school sections,” total nearly three million acres, all managed by the State Land Board. These 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 is commonly achieved through leasing lands to agricultural operators and others. Ranchers use these grazing leases for summer pasture for herds.
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. Understandably, cattle won’t drink from water tanks that are surrounded by campers. Some campers have chased calves with off-road vehicles and damaged the agriculture irrigation system.
According to Medina, 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,” said Medina.
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’s 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.
Camping remains free and first-come, first-served 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.
The Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners is a constitutionally created agency that manages a $4 billion endowment of assets for the intergenerational benefit of Colorado’s K-12 schoolchildren and public institutions. The agency is the second-largest landowner in Colorado and generates revenue on behalf of beneficiaries by leasing nearly three million surface acres and four million mineral acres for agriculture, grazing, recreation, commercial real estate, rights-of-way, renewable energy, oil, gas, and mining. Unlike public lands, trust lands are not open to the public unless a property has been leased for public access.
The agency is entirely self-funded and receives no tax dollars. The agency has generated more than $2 billion for public schools in the past 15 years.
Featured image: Chubb Park in the Fourmile Recreation Area has 14 new dispersed camping sites. Photo courtesy of Envision Chaffee County.