SUMMIT COUNTY - Rivers and streams are often called the circulatory system of an ecosystem, delivering a constant supply of water and nutrients that serve as the basis of life for thousands of species. With that in mind, local Forest Service officials are working to keep rivers flowing strong, cool and clean throughout Summit County.
Through a program called Respect the River, the Dillon Ranger District of the White River National Forest is restoring disturbed riparian zones (areas flanking rivers and streams) and teaching campers, hikers and riders to protect these invaluable lifelines.
As every lover of the outdoors knows, a rushing stream is one of the forest's most enchanting sights, and the sounds of a gurgling creek beat out any lullaby. But sometimes humans show their affections for rivers and streams in ways that ultimately compromise the waterways' health, and by extension, threaten wildlife. In Summit County, "dispersed" camping poses one of the biggest threats. Local forests are home to a wide selection of developed campgrounds with numbered campsites and amenities. But it's also perfectly legal, for now at least, to camp in many remote areas of the White River National Forest, farther away from the hustle and bustle.
"I love to camp, and dispersed camping is great," said Corey Lewellen, a fisheries biologist with the Dillon Ranger District. "The only downside is that we don't manage it, and there is definite resource damage."
With more than 1,500 known dispersed-camping sites throughout the Dillon Ranger District, the Forest Service doesn't have the staff, the time or the funding necessary to make sure people are doing it the right way. According to Lewellen, most people are respectful of forest resources, but the minority of campers who aren't create serious impacts to waterways.
Some people take trucks, cars or ATVs outside designated roads and trails. Some drive through wetlands and creeks. Campsites and vehicles can be found right along stream banks, and some areas are strewn with garbage. Officials have found evidence of people defecating near and even in rivers and streams.
At one improvised campsite about three miles up Miner's Creek last week, an upholstered recliner chair sat about four feet from the stream.
"I guarantee you that's going to end up in the water eventually," Lewellen said.
When people camp, park or drive alongside streams, the soil becomes compacted and vegetation is disturbed, turning once-rich ground into hard, dry dirt. And plant root systems that once held stream banks in place wither, leaving streamsides ripe for erosion. Without vegetative cover, a thunderstorm can rip right through an area, sending thousands of pounds of sediment into the river over the course of a summer.
"The biggest problem is increased sediment in the water and increased turbidity. If there's too much dirt in the creek, it can cause damage to gills, fish can't forage as well, and they leave the area. That's a stress on them," Lewellen said.
Furthermore, when sediment covers clean, gravely stream bottoms, it interferes with fish reproduction. Local fish, including the threatened greenback cutthroat trout and the sensitive Colorado River cutthroat trout, deposit their eggs in gravel. But fish won't do so if the gravel is coated in sediment. When sediment covers eggs that have already been deposited, they lose their oxygen supply and die.
In Frey Gulch, near Keystone, a 1,500-foot section of user-created dirt road was washing directly into the stream until the Forest Service stepped in earlier this summer.
Soil compaction also changes the temperature of streams. The willows that line local waters provide shade, keeping waters cool. If willows can't grow, the stream heats up. And the impacts spread throughout the forest ecosystem to animals other than fish.
"Riparian vegetation is definitely important for other wildlife - beaver, birds, deer and moose all depend on it. Beavers eat mostly willows," Lewellen said.
When trees and plants die naturally or shed their leaves seasonally, they play a critical role in stream health. Decaying leaves and other plant matter provide nutrients for insects near the bottom of the food web. Wood in the stream creates small pools and eddies where fish can rest.
From the perspective of one individual campsite, it may be hard to appreciate the impacts.
"Right here, we've got 100 feet of stream," Lewellen said last week, pointing to a well-worn stretch in Keystone Gulch. "But there are 20 dispersed sites in Keystone, and stuff really adds up."
Garbage too, poses wildlife risks, especially considering the cumulative impacts of thousands of campers who may each leave a scrap or two behind. It's not unusual in local forests to see coyote scat with embedded candy bar wrappers, toilet paper and other trash. And plastic six-pack rings are a frequent find among the rocks in local rivers and streams.
The Forest Service is beginning a two-pronged plan to combat recreation's impact on riparian habitat.
First, crews are conducting restoration work in the areas that have seen the worst damage. They bring in dozers to rake compacted soil, loosening and aerating it, and then scatter native grass seed for revegetation. Some riverside campsites and roads are fenced off. In other places, crews construct water bars to reroute runoff away from disturbed soil, thereby preventing sediment from ending up in the stream. And White River National Forest officials are taking a fresh look at dispersed camping to consider what changes may be in order for existing regulations.
Second, Lewellen and others in the Dillon Ranger District are launching a public education campaign to make outdoor enthusiasts aware of potential impacts to rivers and streams. Signs are going up in popular spots, urging people to camp, drive and park no closer than 100 feet from the edges of streams and rivers.
"If we can keep vehicles out of riparian areas, we will eliminate a huge amount of the impact," Lewellen said.
The Forest Service will also distribute brochures, stickers, temporary tattoos and even drink koozies that ask campers to "Respect the River." Lewellen plans to conduct outreach to school-age children in an effort to instill a river-stewardship ethic in future campers.
"My hope is that, in five to 10 years, people will be out here and recognize, 'Oh, this is a Respect the River site,'" Lewellen said.
SDN reporter Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-4630 or email@example.com.