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Increased Backcountry Tourism Sparks Local Conservation Efforts

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Mark Robbins
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Tourism is one of the strongest economic drivers in the state of Colorado and of many communities on the Western Slope. But the influx of visitors to some areas isn’t always seen as a good thing. For Western Slope Resources Reporting, KBUT's Laura Anderson reports on how one community is taking action.

According to the Colorado Tourism Office, since 2009, Colorado has seen a 41 percent increase in tourism, double the national average, totaling 86 million visitors in 2017. As Laura Anderson Reports, the influx is forcing some communities to take action.

Many of those travelers are ending up in Gunnison County to enjoy the natural beauty that abounds in the remote backcountry.

However, an increase in visitors means impacts to this fragile high-alpine resource are inevitable, exacerbated by the fact that many of the tourists who come to use the high country lack knowledge of how to protect it.

As a result, local organizations are working to ensure that visitors are educated about how to use and preserve these delicate ecosystems, as Ashley UpChurch, executive director of the Crested Butte/Mount Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce explained.

“Part of our responsibility is we’re marketing towns, so we have to take responsibility for the fact that we’re bringing tourists in and they’re going out and using our backcountry,” she said. “We want to make sure that we’re educating those tourists that we’re bringing in and making sure they’re treating our backcountry appropriately as we’re bringing them in to help our economy.”

This includes telling people where they can camp, where to use the bathroom and how to properly clean up after themselves, and of course, don’t feed the bears.

To kickstart the process, the Chamber and the U.S. Forest Service placed eight porta-potties at high-traffic trailheads surrounding Crested Butte over the summer. The hope was that they would cut down on the amount of human waste in the woods. Human waste that organizations, like the Crested Butte Conservation Corps (CBCC), must haul back to town sanitation facilities.

The CBCC was founded two years ago by the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (CBMBA).

“There was a huge void or lapse, if you will, in terms of [being] under resourced, understaffed there in the backcountry, and we as mountain bikers feel a very strong sense of obligation to conservation and we took it upon ourselves to start the CBCC,” said David Ochs, director of CBMBA.

According to Ochs, Conservation Corps workers had about 1,400 actual conversations with backcountry users, and over 10,000 impressions on people through their work hauling trash, directing traffic and being available visitors.

The CBCC is also doing its part to help remove waste from remote areas. In 2017, crews removed 700 pounds of trash, along with toilets, grills and a few reclining chairs. This year, the organization has removed more than 500 pounds of waste, plus a boat and trailer and a slide-in camper for a pick-up truck, which Ochs estimates totals more than 1,500 pounds of trash.

Why are such things there in the first place? Ochs isn’t quite sure, but guesses that some of it comes from people who find that temporary living in the backcountry isn’t easy.

“Some of it is, you know, being unprepared, the unknown phenomenon that comes along and forces people to leave,” Ochs surmised. “The other one, I don’t know. I don’t know why people abandon personal belongings that we come across, personal photos, IDs, what looks like memorable paraphernalia, if you will, and it just gets left behind. It’s crazy. I can’t explain why, but I think sometimes it is the weather.”

Ochs says he feels it’s up to the CBCC and other organizations in Gunnison County to educate visitors and provide more infrastructure in remote areas because he knows quite a few of the millions of people visiting Colorado will find themselves in the backcountry.

“It’s up to us. I think it really is up to us to educate and provide the infrastructure,” Ochs said. “And again, it’s not like it was in the ’70s, it’s not like it was in the ’80s, it’s not like it was in the ’90s, when I moved here in the early 2000s, it’s not like it was in the early 2000s. They’re coming, and if we don’t get in front of it, that’s on us.”