2017 year in review: Preserving our natural resources amid increasing popularity
It’s no surprise why Summit County gets so many visitors: we are in truly one of the most spectacular and enchanting counties in the nation. You’d be hard pressed to find a prettier combination of mountains, trees, water and snow anywhere. But the popularity is taking a heavy toll on Summit’s public lands and open spaces — they’re being loved to death. In 2017, the Summit Daily brought the issue to the forefront again and again, from the growing parking and traffic issues to the many rescues straining county resources.
When you think of what makes Summit a magnet for visitors, your eyes naturally go to the horizon and the mountains that give the county its name. Quandary Peak is a focal point for attention, being the county’s only 14er. Around 15,000 to 20,000 thousand estimated visitors hike Quandary every year, making it the fifth most popular 14er in the state. The mountain is already showing signs of distress from that attention, with trampled ecosystems and widening footpaths intruding into the wilderness. In November we reported how a local non-profit dedicated to protecting Quandary Peak and the state’s other 14ers, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI), worked to revamp and improve Quandary’s trails and protect its fragile ecosystem.
“These are some of the most sought after hiking mountains in the country and they see people from all over the country,” Colorado Fourteeners Initiative executive director Lloyd Athearn said at the time. “So we’d better start taking care of these trail systems that are needed to handle these high volumes of use.”
Quandary’s parking and traffic issue also got attention, as the huge influx of visitors packs the trailhead parking lot and regularly results in illegal overflow parking on Highway 9. In December we reported how the U.S. Forest Service consulted with environment graduate students at the University of Colorado Boulder to come up with creative solutions to Quandary’s parking issues. The students produced an intriguing idea: a shuttle service from Breckenridge up to Quandary, similar to the shuttle service established for Boulder’s Chautauqua Park. The plan benefits from the ample parking available outside of ski season in Breck as well as the infrastructure already in place for transit such as the Summit Stage bus.
Aside from more traffic, more visitors also mean more rescues in the mountains. Rescue teams like the Summit County Rescue Group (SCRG) were called out dozens of times to help stranded hikers, climbers, skiers and other stranded visitors who fall prey to the unforgiving landscape. In July, after the fourth death on a 14er this year, we reported how the SCRG has been trying to educate visitors about the dangers of the mountains, as well as how to prepare and respect nature in order to stay alive.
“[Climbing 14ers] are risky endeavors — they are,” Charles Pitman, a SCRG mission coordinator and spokesman, said at the time. “Sometimes accidents just happen and that’s something you can’t avoid, but there are also times when shortcuts are taken. You have to be prepared to call it a day when you get to the limits of your abilities.”
In May we reported of a daring overnight rescue operation to save two stranded climbers on Quandary. The rescue involved a Blackhawk helicopter from the Army National Guard’s High-Altitude Aviation Training Site (HAATS). We later interviewed the rescued men and they recounted how close to death they came, and the newfound respect they had for the mountain.
“You try to limit exposure and mitigate risk as much as possible,” said Thomas Ferrara of Bakersfield, California. “But there’s always that unknown. The mountain itself has a way about it to kill you.”
We also had a number of stories this year involving our favorite four-legged companions rescuing and being rescued in the mountains. Back in February we profiled Baloo, a Copper Mountain avalanche rescue dog, and his handler Janie Merickel.
From puppy to prime, we explored the life of a mountain rescue dog and what goes into training them. While dogs spend much of their lives with a single handler, they must be trained to rescue with anyone at any time.
“I want the dog to be so good that it doesn’t matter who’s with him,” Merickel told us at the time. “It’s all about bringing out someone alive. That’s the name of the game.”
We reported how a local couple rescued a dog named Chloe in September after she went missing for over a month in neighboring Park County. After five weeks of searching near her last known location on Mount Bross, Chloe’s owner Larry Osborne had given up and told his son that their dog had died. Alma couple Trinity Smith and Larry Osbourne made several attempts to rescue Chloe, and also lost hope.
“We still hadn’t heard anything and we were giving up because it started snowing,” Smith said when we talked to her in September. “We were sitting on the rocks and I started crying. We started to walk away, and that’s when we heard the first bark of the day.”
The couple managed to find and rescue Chloe and returned her to a tear-jerking, joyous reunion with her family.
While the feel-good stories are nice, their growing frequency is cause for concern. As we see a larger influx of tourists, regular visitors and risk-takers, Summit has to be prepared for them while protecting the resource that makes this place so great – the wide, wild open spaces and public lands.
Looking to the future, the county is thinking of solutions and how to reduce our collective footprint on this majestic part of the Rockies, as well as how to educate visitors before they arrive so they respect the beauty along with enjoying it.
Discouraging tourism is not a solution most locals would suggest, even if some people with a “NATIVE” bumper sticker probably would. However, some promising initiatives are coming to light and opening the door for creative and innovative solutions in 2018 and beyond.
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