Elbows collide in Crested Butte semi-backcountry

Gothic 15 mph sign downsized

During July, the gravel road through Gothic looks like commuter traffic in Denver, says a local newspaper editor. On a Saturday evening in late August, traffic had slackened considerably. Photo/Allen Best

Can pure science co-exist with robust tourism at lab near Crested Butte?

by Allen Best

MT. CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory can best be understood as a 1,000-acre island of scientific research in a sea of public lands. Whether experiments can continue unblemished at the outdoor laboratory is the vital question as use of the public lands near Crested Butte has grown in recent years.

Some think that Crested Butte’s summer busyness can be explained by the congestion of Interstate 70.

Others point to the lingering “hangover” of Whatever, the festival sponsored by Budweiser last year that received prominent national attention by … well, by drinkers of Bud.

Yet another cause may be winter promotions at the ski area that have drawn return visitors in summer or even rising temperatures in places like Oklahoma and Texas. For that matter, summer seems longer, the aspen leaves turning yellow perhaps a week later than they used to.

Sales tax figures in Crested Butte, the old mining town, attest to the growing bulk of the summer economy.

“Last year, our sales taxes for June and September were only slightly lower than for March and December. July and August are much bigger than anything during winter,” says Jim Schmidt, a town council member.

Schmidt has been in Crested Butte since 1976, and he describes a reduced presence of the Forest Service. “There are fewer campgrounds here than when I moved here 39 years ago,” he says.

But there are more people. “It’s astounding how many people are out there on weekends, especially in July,” he says.

Schmidt describes seeing 100 cars parked at one trailhead this summer, 70 at another—both miles off the nearest paved road. And, in both cases, the road taking them there goes through Gothic, the flash-in-a-path mining town from the 1880s that is the headquarters for the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

A scientist in Colorado first visited Gothic in 1919 and recognized its potential. The lab was formally established in 1928, and it now draws scientists from across the United States—the world, too—to study butterfly genetics, bee pollination, and wildflower meadows turning to sagebrush. Some have returned faithfully every summer for decades. The longest current track record goes back to 1956. Among repeat visitors is the prominent Berkeley team, Paul and Anne Ehrlich. Currently the lab draws 160 people, but at peak season, some 200 to 250 people can be in the area, taking quarters in Mt. Crested Butte, located 3 miles away at the base of the ski area, or at Crested Butte, the old mining town, which is 8 miles away.

Over time, important research has emerged from the laboratory at 9,485 feet in elevation. Much of what we know about pollination biology comes from the laboratory.

Now, research continues into how rising temperatures will affect the climates of mountain valleys into the future.

One experiment, being funded by the Department of Energy, explores effects of rising temperatures in the Colorado River Basin during the next 25 to 50 years. Individual mountain valleys have proven tremendously challenging to climate modelers. The series of questions being explored seeks to understand very complicated hydrological modeling. For example, if temperatures cause meadows to change over time into shrublands, wildflowers into sagebrush, how does that affect water runoff?

RMBL sign downsizedAnother ongoing experiment involves bees and pollination. But there was a bump in that research. One study site, located on nearby Forest Service land, had become sullied. There was just too much fecal matter in the area.

That’s just one of many blatant examples of recreational visitors, mostly innocent in their pursuits, creating conflicts with scientific research. While scientists—and valley ranchers like Bill Trampe—have complained of intrusions for many years, the scale has picked up in just the last few years. Property lines don’t mean quite as much. Fences don’t necessarily make good neighbors. One local rancher described a “flood” of visitors.

“People were literally defecating in the woods. Traffic on the old dirt Gothic Road at times looked like a work commute in Denver,” writes Mark Reaman in the Crested Butte News. “Campsites and fire rings were every 50 feet in spots in July and attitudes were less respectful than we here in the valley are used to.”

Ian Billick, the manager of the laboratory since 2000 and, before that, a researcher beginning in 1988, can point to any number of annoyances and disruptions. He also sees a pattern. The Forest Service, he says, does not have the money nor the framework for managing large amounts of dispersed recreation, as is now occurring in the Crested Butte area.

That observation was reinforced this summer in Crested Butte when the Forest Service reported they didn’t have the money for backcountry outhouses. Crested Butte is helping pony up the money for the toilets next year.

Russell Forrest, the assistant Gunnison County manager, has experience from Vail and Snowmass Village. In part, this is an upward tick after the Great Recession. A traffic counter on the road to Gothic shows an 81 percent increase in traffic from 2013 to 2015. There were concerns during the last boom period, of 2005-2006, so the problem is not new.

Hiking trails to the Maroon Bells area, on the other side of the Elk Range, are a draw. Hanging around the visitors’ center one day, Forrest said 95 percent of the people were asking directions for those trails.

At a retreat held this summer at Gothic, many ideas were suggested, and there are both small and easier short-term steps as well as long-term strategies, says Forrest, if none are yet firm. One of the bolder ideas involves providing bus service to the hiking trails, somewhat similar to what occurs on the opposite side of the range, to the base area for the Maroon Bells.

Still another idea, also implemented in the Maroon Bells area, is to limit traffic altogether during mid-day and during mid-season. But that would be hard to effect in the Crested Butte-Gothic area, because the road through Gothic is part of a long loop past Paradise Basin. The devil is always in the details.

What seems more certain are small steps: more backcountry privies next summer and stepped-up enforcement, for example.

Have things gone to hell in a hand-basket at Crested Butte and Gothic? Again, everything is relevant. To most visitors, the valley remains heavenly.

And I’m reminded of a conversation. Somebody had moved from the Aspen area to Crested Butte, to get away from the “noise,” or general high level of activity. I asked him how he liked it now. “I said I wanted to turn down the noise, not turn iff off,” he replied with a smile.

One reason Forest Service says it has so little money

DENVER, Colo. – Federal land managers in the American West were in Denver at summer’s start to talk about fire. With the drought on the West Coast, managers worried about major fires there and, later in the season, northern Idaho.

Three months later, their worries have been borne out.

But their strongest message in June was about the cost of fighting fires. At the time, there was a 93 percent chance that the U.S. Forest Service will spend somewhere between $810 million and $1.62 billion this year in fighting these fires, said Tom Vilsack, the secretary of the Department of Agriculture. The Forest Service is in that agency.

That pinches the Forest Service, Vilsack went on to explain, in that the money will have to be reallocated from other budgets. He predicted at least $200 million would have to be reallocated from funds designed to make forests more resilient, to reduce the “risk long term of these catastrophic and horrific fires.”

It’s a long-standing complaint, and the agencies have argued that money for fighting the largest forest fires should come out of federal disaster funds, not the budget of the agencies. So far, the U.S. Congress has not gone along with that reasoning.

“Congress can’t have it both ways,” said Vilsack. In winter, congressional representatives articulate the need for greater restoration of forests, expanded recreational opportunities, “and all of the things that occur with a healthy forest.” But then, he added, Congress won’t give the agency the capacity and resources.

In Wyoming soon after, Vilsack continued the theme at a stop in Jackson Hole.

“People say we need more facilities. Absolutely,” he said. “But we’ve seen a 68 percent reduction in the facilities budget because of fire suppression.”

The budget for trails has been slashed 13 percent, reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide, while deferred maintenance is down 95 percent and wilderness and recreation heritage programs have been cut 14 percent.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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