Memorial Day Visitor Use trends (They’re UP…)
Our Memorial Day weekend survey in 2017 marked the ninth annual survey of visitor numbers and activities. We began patrolling and observing – with Forest service and BLM staff – in 2003, but did not begin formal surveys until 2009.
Surveying over 220 known camping sites along Fourmile’s 130 miles of dirt roads on a single day on the busiest weekend of the year poses challenges. Over the years we’ve simplified data collection to ensure our 5 teams are as consistent as possible. Absolute numbers are not very accurate, but allow identifying trends and issues where a management action (fencing an area, closing an unauthorized spur, posting a sign, more visitor education) can head off future problems.
Although we divide Fourmile into five separate survey sectors, and can compare types of use between them, in the table below we have combined data from all five to illustrate trends. We adopted a different format in 2016 and have not yet had time to reformat all earlier years, but the table still has interesting stories to tell.
SUMMARY OF FOURMILE VISITOR USE DATA 2009-2017
|No. sites occupied||81||109||76||81||98||*||67||157||187 R|
|% occupied of available||58||78||55||43||52||*||32||65||84 R|
|New sites created||dnc||dnc||dnc||4||5||*||2||12||25 R|
|Overnight Camping Units||287||368||276||267||386||*||277||486||524 R|
|% units OHV-associated||87%||82%||66%||70%?||59%||*||48%||32%||43%|
|Day use/parking counts||20||59||25||41||26||*||48||78||47|
|OHVs (ATVs+motorbikes)||*||*||*||262||341||*||188||453||607 R|
|Street Vehic (cars/trucks)||*||*||*||*||*||*||194||375||448 R|
Notes: 2015 was a very wet weekend and all numbers were very low
dnc=data not collected; * = data collected but not yet reentered in 2016 format; R=record result
This Memorial Day 2017 posted record results in 6 of the 9 primary indicators of use, suggesting in many ways it was the busiest Memorial Day ever. It also confirms upward trends. Record indicators were
- Of approximately 220 campsites available, 187 were occupied
- The 84% occupancy is higher than ever recorded
- Twenty-five new sites were created – twice the highest previous observation
- Overnight Camping Units exceeded 500 for the first time ever
- The total of OHVS exceed 600 for the first time ever
- Total street vehicles (cars, jeeps, SUVs, pickups) was nearly 450
The three remaining indicators need some interpretation
- The percentage of overnight Camping Units associated with OHVs has been steadily dropping over the past 9 years, but since the total number of OHVs observed is at a record high, this drop most likely represents an increase in other user types: mountain bikes, general campers, people using Fourmile as a convenient place to camp for other local activities
- Day use/parking appears to be trending downward. These are mostly OHV users, and probably more of local origin than from outside; local OHV users may be adopting the strategy of skipping Memorial Day knowing it will be extremely crowded
- Mountain bike use in this data is inconclusive, but other measures which look at trail use not on Memorial Day show very large increases – and Chaffee County bicycle activity is way, way up in general
It’s important to note Memorial Day is by far the busiest weekend in Fourmile’s summer season. This level of use, and the pressures it puts on Fourmile’s resources, comes only once a year (fortunately). Interestingly however, Memorial Day impacts have lasting impacts: new sites and little spurs off to them tend to get used again in following years; existing campsites expand in place. In effect, the balloon gets expanded a little every year so that the public comes to expect a bigger balloon.
Friends of Fourmile is taking these observations – and analysis – to the BLM and Forest Service. We are continuing a discussion of what increased use and shifting patterns do to the resources our chapter is focused on helping protect, and what actions the agencies can take to address this. At the heart of the debate is whether eventually Fourmile should adopt active measures to limit the capacity of its use, especially on peak weekends. Our view: that time is inevitably coming.
New mapping tool (monitoring use in the digital/satellite age…)
Taking advantage of the 14+ years keeping track of recreational use in Fourmile, we’ve recently expanded the way we keep tabs on all that stuff.
In past years, we’ve put information into lists and tables and placed locations on topo maps. These are useful but it can still be confusing as to where things are on the ground, and to track if they are changing. It’s sometimes not easy to share this information with others who need to know in the BLM and Forest Service.
The next-gen system we’re working on is to record information in Google Earth. Turns out we can place all 220 campsites, dozens of trailheads and parking areas and little camping spurs, and site-specific observations (even boundaries of private lands inside the area) in different layers that show up on Google Earth’s satellite imagery. These layers can be switched on and off so you can isolate different types of information. And, it’s easy to make changes and send around a “folder” of updated information to others who can “click” to bring up their own copy of Google Earth with all our data visible.
As a quick intro to what this looks like, here’s just one of those layers we’re developing:
Here we’re displaying over 220 established dispersed legal camping sites in the 100,000 acres of BLM and US Forest Service lands that make up Fourmile. To make it less confusing, we’ve turned off all the numbers which identify these sites. The handy thing is that on Google Earth you can zoom right down to individual sites and be sure identifying numbers are correct, and make a specific comment about that site.
Major reprinting and updates of brochures and kiosk (entry) maps
After getting our partners to suggest and review changes, a couple of us who’ve been involved since 2004 reprinted the Fourmile brochure and updated all large-format maps at Fourmile’s entries and trailheads. The 18,000 Fourmile brochures (cost $4100) should last through 2019; the 16 or so new big maps ($2100) will last – vandalism excepted – for three or four years before the sun takes its toll. Most funding for printing comes from BLM and FS, but the chapter volunteers thousands of dollars’ worth of graphic design and editing. The usual big vote of appreciation to Kathy McCoy for her professional graphic talent for updates, and to other volunteers for getting the new signs installed before Memorial Day.
Midland Bicycle Trail Signs Refreshed
The popular 18-mile hiking and biking (and parts motorized) trail from Buena Vista to Trout Creek Pass has gotten its classic medallion signposts face-lifted. These signposts, and the original Midland Bike Trail maps and brochure originated in a 2004 grant to GARNA/Friends of Fourmile from Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s State Trails Program, and the chapter has kept a close hand in the trail’s upkeep ever since (see also trails info below).
Major Fourmile Trails Rerouted – new trails proposed on BLM and (down the road) on Forest Service
Over the past year, Friends of Fourmile joined volunteer groups around Buena Vista in planning and building substantial reroutes along the 25+ year old Midland Bike Trail. Along the central, non-motorized section of the “MBT” between CR304 and Shields Gulch there are four “diversions” from the gentle grade of the old 1885 Colorado Midland where trestles were removed. When the MBT was opened, all four diversions were constructed rapidly and – it turns out – were rough, technical, and unsustainable. As of late 2016, through joint efforts by BLM, BV Trails, Friends of Fourmile, local bike shops and unaffiliated volunteers, the western two diversions have been converted to non-technical, intermediate mountain biker level. Reaction from not only bikers but hikers has been overwhelmingly positive. For more on this, go here and search the upper left Facebook box for “Midland reroutes.”
A more ambitious reroute, designed to eliminate another piece of unsustainable trail, was also completed in late 2016. Locally dubbed “Bacon Bits,” it connects 376B to the MBT and will be part of the “Gentleman’s Loop,” a beloved route for BV hikers and bikers for decades. This intermediate-level reroute has rapidly become THE favorite and has gotten rave reviews from locals and visitors. You can get visuals on this by also going here and search for “Bacon Bits.”
As for additional trails, a major cooperation between the Town of BV and BV Trails, with public input via several meetings, resulted in a May 2017 submission of a revised proposal to the BLM to create 18 miles of new trails on BLM lands within Fourmile. Beginning with an earlier 2016 proposal which generated considerable concern and opposition, the task was to address those concerns and generate a realistic compromise that would garner general support. The Friends of Fourmile was invited to join a sub-group to render the diverse input into a final proposal. In brief, if approved following environmental studies and a period of further public review, the BLM would authorize construction of some 12 miles of non-motorized hiking/biking single track. This would expand the Whipple Trail system originating in BV and include several additional trails deeper in Fourmile. An additional 4mi singletrack motorcycle trail would be put in south of 285/24 in the Chinamans Loop area, and a 2mi ATV route would be added within the existing loop of 6037 and 6038 north of Buena Vista near Turtle Rock.
After years of urging by the Friends and others, in June 2017 the Forest Service announced its intent to consider recognizing a widely-known but unauthorized advanced mountain biking route called Vitamin B. Linking 377 with 375E this 4.5mi user-created trail is arguably the most-favored advanced biking route in northern Chaffee County (just Google it…). But it’s also generally a GREAT hiking route (if you avoid the death-defying steep rocky drops). Included in the Forest Service’s announcement was another trail on FS lands in Fourmile, an approximately mile-long extension/reroute of the Midland Bike Trail from Shields to McGee Gulch, along the original Midland RR. More in coming months as the FS announces its final decision on these.