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Responsible recreation in the new public health landscape

Locations: News Published

For so many Carbondalians, Mushroom Rock feels like a backyard. The COVID-19 stay-at-home order, however, is blurring the boundaries of mountain town backyards and home trails. As local recreation areas see increased use amidst warming weather and residents stuck at home, land management agencies are trying to keep up with rapidly-changing public health information. 

Amidst guideline changes, some public areas are caught between the lines of rather contradictory press releases.. For example, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) closed campgrounds, playgrounds, and their associated facilities on March 26 although the State Parks themselves remain open. CPW also recently published tips for trail safety etiquette including “stay regional” and “avoid times and places of high use.” Where, then, do regional places of high use — like Mushroom Rock — fall within these guidelines? 

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It’s not always clear, either, which agencies are responsible for which areas. Mushroom Rock is a part of Red Hill Recreation Area, which sits on BLM land. Its parking area, however, is owned by the Town of Carbondale. 

Who, then, is in charge here? To whom should Carbondalians turn to ensure they are recreating responsibly? 

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Essentially, these lands still belong to the public and it continues to bear the weight of using them responsibly. For the time being, the conversation around responsibility needs to expand beyond familiar principles like “leave no trace.” Though citizens have a right to use public land under normal circumstances, it should be considered a privilege in the current climate.

Different agencies are staying in touch with each other regarding decisions around public land use. David Boyd of the Colorado River Valley Field Office said the BLM is “trying to find the balance of allowing people to enjoy public lands safely.” 

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Boyd’s office oversees use of both the Red Hill and the Crown — otherwise known as Prince Creek—recreation areas, the latter of which BLM is planning to open to full use April 15. However, there are multiple governing agencies overseeing that space, as well. “When you look at the Crown, it has Pitkin, Garfield, and Eagle Counties all involved,” Boyd said. “We’re keeping in contact with counties and local governments and taking it day by day.”

The Town of Carbondale has been following the results of a weekly National Recreation and Park Association survey. Recent results showed that 91 percent of responding agencies nationally have closed playgrounds, but the same percentage of trail networks remains open. 

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“I know that trailheads are a big issue right now, state-wide” said Garfield County Chief Communications Officer Renelle Lott. Managing the use of the Red Hill area, Lott said, is “a little bit of a public health issue, a little bit of a parking lot issue, and a little bit of an enforcement issue.”

The question of responsible use of the beloved Red Hill recreation area will be a moot point starting later this month. The parking area, Town trails and BLM trails will be closed for four to six weeks for the parking lot construction project funded by Aspen Valley Land Trust’s recent Save Red Hill fundraising campaign.

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As locals seek other trails to satisfy their needs, there are the usual springtime land use concerns to keep in mind. Warm days and nighttime temperatures just around freezing keep avalanche concerns moderate, with increasing risk throughout the day, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s backcountry forecast. The White River National Forest Office asks people to avoid high-risk activities right now, to keep from tying up search-and-rescue teams and first responders.

The Forest Service is also asking the public to respect current trail closures, many of which are necessary to protect wildlife during “the toughest time of the year,” according to a Monday news release. Trail closures in the Crown area are part of wildlife conservation efforts. “Human activities in deer and elk winter habitat can flush them from areas of nutrient-rich spring forage that is essential for females to raise their young in seclusion successfully.” One trail in Vail County closed for wildlife this time last year saw 148 human and dog violations. 

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Hikers and cyclists may find more mud on trails without the benefits of the southern exposure that Red Hill has. Shelly Grail of the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District took to Facebook to let people know that “if people encounter mud or snow, I encourage them to walk through and not around it. Bypassing the wet spots causes erosion and trail braiding.” 

Despite some risk in outdoor recreation in the COVID-19 climate, land agencies are still encouraging the public to utilize local trails. State Trails Program Manager Fletcher Jacobs said that CPW’s goal “is to minimize the effects of COVID-19 on people’s recreation experiences in Colorado, especially now when they need them the most.” CPW listed many benefits of outdoor recreation in a recent news release including exposure to vitamin D, reduced levels of stress and anxiety, and even benefits to the immune system from aromatherapy; by breathing in airborne chemicals that plants make called phytoncides.

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With these benefits comes a list of recommendations. All land agencies are promoting social distancing on trails and public lands. CPW also suggests practicing good hygiene, staying regional, and avoiding high-risk and high-use areas.

You can explore alternate trails and stay updated on the latest from land-use agencies by using the Colorado Trail Explorer (COTREX) app online or on a smart device. It has many of the same tools and functions as other trail-finding apps, but it updates daily with COVID-19 related trail closures and alerts from the local, state, and federal levels. 

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One more recommendation from CPW: “Be kind, say hi.” As hikers skirt each other on the trail to keep six feet away, remember to make eye contact and smile. “The risk of COVID-19 is not at all connected with race, ethnicity, or nationality,” CPW said. “Blaming others will not help fight the illness. Do your part to be kind, say hi or wave hello, respect your fellow humans when you are out on the trail in these challenging times.”

 During nationwide stay-at-home orders, mountain town residents are privileged to have abundant access to the outdoors, fresh air, and ample space. Cherish it responsibly. 

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