For several years now, the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Kremmling Field Office (KFO) has been challenged with finding balance between a growing number of river users and protecting the environment on the upper Colorado River. The popularity of rafting, kayaking and and fishing on one of Colorado’s few remaining unregulated stretches of river has resulted in significantly increased usage of the river corridor. In some sections of the stretch, the river is literally being loved to death.
In the last fifteen years, river usage on the upper Colorado has more than doubled. In 2018, an estimated 95,000 visited the stretch which is much higher than the 55,000 that visited in 2008. Private boaters and fishermen are now surpassing commercial outfitter utilization.
The KFO manages the section of the Colorado River that runs from Parshall to State Bridge and the BLM Colorado River Valley Field Office manages the section from State Bridge to Dotsero. Together, the two BLM Field Offices coordinate management of the Upper Colorado River Special Recreation Management Area (SRMA) as reaffirmed in the 2015 Resource Management Plan (RMP). The BLM Kremmling Field Office collected more than $220,000 in commercial and recreation fees from the Upper Colorado River SRMA last year. These funds are used to manage the SRMA.
In late February, the BLM Kremmling Field Office (KFO) released an Environmental Assessment (EA) that describes and analyzes alternative approaches to managing the river stretch from Parshall to State Bridge. “We are updating our management of this stretch of river to better meet the demands of current and future recreational use,” said Kremmling Field Manager Bill Mills. “Recreation is an important economic driver in this area, and we want to continue to manage this as one of the premiere river recreation resources in the state.”
The KFO subdivided the section into five distinct Recreation Management Zones (RMZ), each identified with different usage and management needs.
RMZ 1: The stretch of river between Parshall and Kremmling is managed for wade fishing, scenic touring and wildlife viewing. The RMZ runs along the river and the the Colorado River
Headwaters National Scenic and Historic Byway (CRHNSHB) and incorporates the Junction Butte Watchable Wildlife Area. BLM manages five day-use fishing access sites in RMZ 1. Boating activities upstream of Kremmling are minimal.
RMZ 2: The Gore Canyon segment is a nationally significant, Class V whitewater section. Use of this section by boaters occurs in late summer, when flows drop on other Class V sections around the state and nation. An annual whitewater race, which attracts participants from across the country, takes place in the canyon every August under a Commercial/Competitive Special Recreation Permit. Gore Canyon is managed for floatboating and hike-in wade fishing. The BLM manages one day-use boat access site at the Colorado River’s confluence with the Blue River.
RMZ 3: The vast majority of recreational use along the Upper Colorado River occurs on the section of river in RMZ 3 between Pumphouse Recreation Site and State Bridge Recreation Site. This section of river is the primary recreation attraction within the KFO. It is managed for Class II to Class III floatboating, fishing, hiking and camping. Dispersed camping is allowed anywhere along this stretch of river outside of developed recreation sites.
The BLM manages three developed recreation sites, Pumphouse Recreation Area, Radium Recreation Area, and State Bridge Recreation Site within RMZ 3. Pumphouse and Radium offer developed campgrounds, while all three sites offer information, parking, restroom, and trash facilities, and boat ramps. A Recreation Use Permit program is currently in place, with fees charged per night for developed campsites and per vehicle, per day for all visitors entering any of the developed recreation sites.
Under existing management, visitors often float the river some days or weeks ahead of their planned visit to drop personal items, such as a tent or other gear to hold their site of choice, which discourages others from using it. As a result of this “camp grabbing,” many sites go unused for days at a time while they are held by personal items. The resulting lack of available campsites has led to the creation of new and undesired dispersed sites and resource damage, such as sanitation issues, loss of surface vegetation and damage to trees from the harvesting of branches for firewood, campfire scars, and river bank erosion.
Pit toilets that previously existed along this river segment were removed in 2013 because they did not comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act. Since that time, exposed human waste has become a prevalent health and safety issue. Visitors who do not willingly carry portable toilet or waste devices are limited to burying their waste. This continued sanitation issue has been cumulatively adding to the leaching and contamination of soils and water.
The historic Argentine Trail, designated for foot and horse traffic, provides access to dispersed fishing sites along this stretch of river and the Radium Warm Springs site. The Argentine Trail, combined with the Warm Springs trail network, can be through-hiked between the Radium area and Gore Canyon Ranch in RMZ 5.
The Radium Warm Springs is a popular stop for boaters, as well as a destination for hikers and non-boating campers. Due to the site’s popularity and high level of use, it is difficult to manage, and the additional strain of walk-in campers has potentially impacted the experience of floatboaters. The dispersed camping that occurs above and near the Warm Springs has caused significant resource damage in the immediate area, such as numerous, large dispersed campsites and fire pits, loss of surface vegetation and compacted soils, trees damaged by fire and firewood harvest, and sanitation issues.
There are also concerns with trespassing and public safety on Union Pacific Railroad (UPR) tracks and roads and the public route designated as open to motorized vehicles passes through the State Bridge Recreation Site and leads to Piney Peak.
RMZ 4: Yarmony Jeep Trail, is currently managed for extreme Jeeping and has no developed recreation sites. Due to the topography and limited area, the 2015 KFO Record of Decision/Resource Management Plan identified RMZ 4 for closure to overnight camping throughout the entire zone. The Yarmony Jeep Trail, now primarily known by its users as the Trough Trail, runs within a drainage that provides technical and extreme Jeep Crawling and connection to a designated primitive road on the upper bench to the east. Another connecting trail that was not initially inventoried, known as Trough Your Rocker, runs west up another drainage to a high point on the upper ridge. Currently this is an up-and-back trail.
RMZ 5: Gore Canyon Ranch is located just downstream from Pumphouse. It is managed for wildlife viewing, hiking and fishing. An undesignated primitive road, as described earlier, connects the Argentine Trail to the Pumphouse Recreation Site and is used by hikers and walk-in anglers.
It is clear that RMZ 3 is the zone most in need of attention and the Environmental Assessment offers three alternatives:
Alternative A (No Action):
Under this alternative, none of the components of Alternative B or C would occur. The Upper Colorado River management would remain as it is currently.
Permits – A new permit system would not be developed for day use or overnight use. The current permit system for parking passes and camping in developed campgrounds would remain unchanged.
Campground Expansion – Pumphouse Campground would not be expanded with campsites for campers and RVs. The current campground layout, not designed for use by large vehicles, would remain unchanged.
Designated River Campsites – Dispersed campsites along the Upper Colorado River would continue to be identified with site markers, but they would not be designated, and camping would not be limited to those sites. Visitors would continue to set up camps days ahead of their planned use in order to “reserve” their preferred site.
Travel Management – The Trough Your Rocker, its return loop, and the Argentine Connector Trail would not be designated. The old Trough Road alignment would remain open.
Permits – Camping permits would be required for floatboaters at designated primitive campsites within 1⁄4 mile of the river in RMZ 3. The river campsites would be available for reservation through recreation.gov. Campsites would have group size limitations that would be determined based on the size of the area. The designated primitive campsite at the mouth of Piney Creek would be excluded from the camping permit requirement. It would remain available to everyone on a first come, first served basis.
Campground Expansion – The Pumphouse Campground would be expanded to include a separate area for RVs and Campers. The expansion area would encompass approximately three acres. The area would contain an unspecified number of pull-through campsites, with water and electrical hook-ups at each site and a two-vault toilet. The water and electric line would run off of the existing lines and be routed under the parking area for the group campsites. The access to the expansion area would be through the existing group campsite access road.
Designated River Campsites – Designate 25 primitive campsites along the river in RMZ 3. Camping in RMZs 2 and 5 would not be allowed within 1⁄4 mile of the river. The designated sites would not include any improvements, such as picnic tables or metal fire rings. Camping would only be allowed at these designated sites.
Travel Management – Designate the Trough Your Rocker Trail as open to motorized use and develop a return route from the end of the trail to the main road traversing RMZ 4. Develop a connector trail between the Pumphouse Recreation Area and the Argentine Trail along an existing two-track route. Work would include converting approximately 1.04 miles of an existing two-track route into a single-track hiking trail. Close the remaining .50 mile of the old Trough Road alignment, starting at Cable Rapid, to motorized public use. An access gate would be installed to allow the UPR access to their junction boxes.
Alternative C (Proposed Action):
Permits – Day Use Permits would be unlimited, self-issuing, and required for all users, including hikers, wade fishermen, floatboaters, warm spring users, etc., in RMZ 2, 3, and 5. Camping Permits would be required for all users at designated primitive sites within 1⁄4 mile of the river in RMZ 3. Camping would not be allowed within 1⁄4 mile of the river in RMZs 2 and 5. The designated river campsites would be available for reservation through recreation.gov. Group size limitations for each campsite would be determined based on the size of the area. Permits would be required for all visitors to RMZs 2, 3, and 5 during the peak use season, from April 1 to October 31 annually. The dispersed campsite at the mouth of Piney Creek would be excluded from the Camping Permit. It would be available to everyone on a first come first serve basis, but users would be required to obtain Day Use Permits.
Campground Expansion, Designated River Campsites and Travel Management would be the same as Alternative B.
The EA describes the Environmental Consequences for each alternative, noting that no action would benefit the user that is looking for a non-permitted and unregulated river. However, the lack of a permit-based system would allow less flexibility to implement stipulations for private users to protect resource values, such as requiring fire pans for campfires, portable self-contained toilet system, or other adaptive management options for responding to emerging issues. Continuing to allow dispersed camping anywhere along the UCR without a permit system would promote a continuation of “camp grabbing” habits. It would promote a continuation of broadly dispersed and growing sanitation issues, especially between Warm Springs and Radium Recreation Area, which affect the quality of recreational experiences.
Under Alternative B, it states that requiring camping permits for private users would have both adverse and beneficial impacts. Private river users are not required to have a permit currently, but are required to stop and pay a use fee at Pumphouse, Radium, and State Bridge Recreation Areas. Requiring a river campsite to be reserved in advance would require visitors to invest extra time into planning their trip and could even discourage some visitors. The closure to dispersed camping within 1⁄4 mile of the river would reduce hike-in camping opportunity where it currently exists, for example, in the vicinity of Warm Springs and upstream from Pumphouse. It would result in day use only along most of the river corridor, except at designated riverside campsites. Hike-in campers would be displaced to developed campgrounds at Pumphouse, Radium or Mugrage, or to other sites farther than 1⁄4 mile from the river.
The number of overnight boating permits would be limited to the number of campsites designated, improving the experience for visitors by providing a guaranteed, reserved campsite. It would also reduce impacts associated with the proliferation of new campsites, such as sanitation issues, loss of surface vegetation and soil compaction, damage to trees from the harvesting of branches for firewood, fire scars, and river bank erosion.
The RV site expansion at the Pumphouse Campground would enhance visitor accommodations by giving RVs/travel trailer campers their own space with amenities such as water and electricity. The lower camping loop would be restricted to tents only, consistent with its design, and would improve public safety by reducing vehicle congestion, line-of-sight visibility in a high-use pedestrian area, and improving access for emergency vehicles.
Adding a connector trail between the existing Argentine Trail and Pumphouse Campground would give the user a more backcountry experience in a natural setting. Formally designating the Trough Your Rocker Trail addresses a missed opportunity in the 2015 Travel Management Plan. Extending the trail to an existing road enhances the user experience by offering a loop instead of an out-and-back trail.
The EA states the impacts listed in Alternative B would be the same as Alternative C, with the addition of the following: Requiring Day Use Permits for private river users would have both adverse and beneficial impacts. Private river users are not required to have a permit currently but are required to stop and pay a use fee at Pumphouse, Radium, and State Bridge Recreation Areas. The implementation of a private user permit system without setting caps on day-use visitation would allow the KFO to include specific stipulations that protect natural resources. A permit system for private users would benefit overall management of the SRMA by providing a means to collect better data on private use of the river, leading to more comprehensive understanding and management of use patterns along the river corridor.
To read the full analysis, visit: bit.ly/2w1hxxy.
Those of us who use rivers to recreate recognize the importance of necessary river management. When the Ruby Horsethief section of the Colorado River implemented a permit system several years ago, an immediate improvement in the condition of the river corridor was evident. Gone was the broken glass, trash and wisps of toilet paper littering the camps and, knowing that your camp was reserved and waiting for you and your group goes a long way in terms of overall experience. While a reservation systems presents more of a challenge to users, the long-term benefits are something we will all appreciate for many years to come.
The BLM expects to make a final decision on the plan in the summer of 2019. Before a new fee structure could be implemented, the BLM will develop a business plan detailing proposed fees and expected revenues, which will be made available for public review. Changes to recreation fees must also be approved by the Northwest Resource Advisory Council, a 15-member citizen advisory board. If approved, the BLM anticipates implementing the new fee structure in the 2021 season.
The KFO encourages public comment. Comments must be received by March 23, 2019 and can be emailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org or, mailed to Bureau of Land Management, Attn: Shane Dittlinger, PO Box 68, Kremmling CO 80459.