Campers have fewer places to pitch tents
Your tax dollars are only partially at work at U.S. Forest Service campgrounds near Aspen this fall.
Three major campgrounds east of Aspen closed right after Labor Day weekend even though September is one of the most scenic times of the year. Lost Man, Lincoln Gulch and Weller campgrounds, which provide 26 sites easily accessible off Highway 82, are locked up for the season.
Difficult Campground, the largest and closest to town, remains open until Sept. 25. It offers 47 sites.
A concessionaire, One Thousand Trails, operates all four of those sites. The White River National Forest hired the national company five years ago to administer several of its campgrounds.
The company collects the $15 camping fees, gives the Forest Service its cut, plows a certain amount of revenues back into improvements and maintenance, and keeps the remainder as profit. Its key to turning a profit is reducing costs, so One Thousands Trails is reluctant to stay open when cooler weather eliminates all but the heartiest campers with good sleeping bags.
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“Clearly when we run things through a concessionaire now it’s run as a business,” said White River Forest Supervisor Maribeth Gustafson.
The Forest Service doesn’t always run its campgrounds like a business, but maybe it should, she added.
Gustafson, who became the head official in the White River in April, said she didn’t know enough about One Thousand Trails’ contract yet to comment on the closure of the Independence Pass sites. When asked if it seemed strange that Forest Service campgrounds were closed just when the aspen leaves are turning in Aspen, she acknowledged it would seem to be a popular time.
While the Forest Service allows its concessionaire to shut down early, it goes old-school with the campgrounds it runs itself in the Maroon Creek Valley. All three campgrounds on the road to the Maroon Bells are still open.
One Thousand Trails doesn’t manage those three campgrounds because it didn’t feel they would be profitable enough.
Silver Bell’s 14 sites will remain open indefinitely. The six at Silver Queen and four at Silver Bar will close Oct. 9.
So why does the Forest Service keep the campgrounds it operates open so late and One Thousand Trails closes most of its earlier? A Forest Service worker joked that the camp hosts for the concessionaire can’t hack the cold weather.
Aspen District Ranger Bill Westbrook said it’s a question of demand. When the Forest Service signed the contract with One Thousand Trails five years ago, the parties negotiated the closing times. The decisions were based in large part on the historic demand. The campgrounds farther up Independence Pass have less demand after Labor Day, when the weather turns colder, he said.
The Forest Service could operate the campgrounds itself after the concessionaire leaves, but it cannot absorb the costs, Westbrook said.
The contract for the campground operations expires after this year. There is an option for another five years. Westbrook said the Forest Service is pleased with One Thousand Trails’ performance and he understands the company wants to renew.
If the concessionaire exercises the option, the contract won’t go out for bid for another five years.
Westbrook said it is possible the Forest Service could alter requirements to keep some campgrounds open later in the season, but he isn’t sure the demand requires a change. He said he hasn’t heard from the public on this issue.
“Our phone isn’t ringing off the hook with people saying ‘I can’t find a place to camp,'” he said.
Another ranger hears differently.
“I’ve heard that from a lot of people – ‘Oh, the campgrounds are closed already? This is the best time to camp,'” the official said.
Westbrook said the Forest Service won’t officially seek public comment on the contract with One Thousand Trails. People are always welcome to send comments to the Aspen District Ranger, 806 W. Hallam, Aspen, CO 81611.
Following is the status of all Forest Service campgrounds in the Aspen/Sopris District:
In the Fryingpan Valley, half of Chapman is closed, but 41 other sites will remain open until Nov. 13. Elk Wallow and Dearhammer close Nov. 13.
At Ruedi Reservoir, Little Maud and Mollie B are closed. Little Mattie closes Nov. 13.
In the Crystal Valley, Avalanche and Redstone Mechau close Nov. 13. Redstone Osgood is open until Oct. 18, weather permitting, and Bogan Flats is open until Oct. 23, weather permitting.
To be on the safe side, campers should bring their own water. Systems will be shut down as required by cold temperatures.
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