White River most popular recreation area in U.S. | SummitDaily.com
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White River most popular recreation area in U.S.

Jane Stebbins

SUMMIT COUNTY – The White River National Forest (WRNF) was the most-visited recreational area in the United States last year, surpassing even visits to the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty.

According to White River Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle, 9.69 million people skied, camped, hiked, fished and otherwise played in the 2.3 million acres of the WRNF in Colorado’s central mountains.

“That’s a reaffirmation of everything we did when we did the (revised) Forest Plan,” said Rich Doak, recreation program manager for the forest. “It’s heavily used. One of the things we discovered nationally is that most forests overestimated their use. We used to be fifth or sixth in the nation, but after this survey, we’re almost 50 percent higher than the next nearest forest.”

The second most popular forest is the Arapaho Roosevelt National Forest/Pawnee National Grasslands in northern Colorado, which saw about 6 million visitors.

Forest Service officials plan to conduct such counts in the WRNF every four years, but they are unable to break down forest use by county, Doak said.

The numbers are significant because the U.S. Forest Service has changed the way it counts recreationalists nationwide. Visitors used to be counted by the amount of time they spent in the forest. If 12 people went mountain biking for one hour, it would count as one visitor day, or if a camper spent four days in the woods it would count as four visitor days.

Now, the counts are conducted more like those at the ski resorts, with each person representing a visit, regardless how much time they spend in the forest.

Because skiers represent 71 percent of those who recreate in the WRNF and those numbers are easily tabulated, the margin of error on the numbers is about 5 percent, making those figures, by far, the most accurate the Forest Service has been able to obtain to date. Those who camp at designated campsites are also easy to count. Hiking is the second-most popular activity.

The numbers are important because they help the Forest Service determine how to manage the forest.

“They make me feel good because we’re paralleling the estimates (in the Forest Plan),” Doak said. “It’s not like we got the numbers back and said, “Oh my God, we were way off all these years.’ We got them back and said, “We are really busy out there.'”

And the counts took place during a bad year. The aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, rampant forest fires, a poor national economy, the drought and new hunting regulations all contributed to less-than-stellar numbers last year.

“If it’d been a normal year, what would our use look like?” Doak wondered. “Those numbers could be 10 to 20 percent higher in a good year.”

Doak anticipates a huge public education effort in the next several years, particularly if growth continues.

According to the Forest Service Environmental Impact Study, the WRNF will reach 72 percent of its capacity in organized areas – which include picnic spots, campgrounds and overlooks, but not ski areas. Capacity is expected to grow to 90 percent by 2020.

Dispersed recreation, which includes those activities that aren’t as easily quantified, is at 45 percent of capacity in the summer. By 2010, that is expected to jump to 57 percent, and by 2020, 69 percent.

Winter dispersed recreation numbers are more difficult to tabulate because, even though an area might comprise 200,000 acres, it often is only accessible through a few trailheads where people are counted.

The report also proved what local foresters already believed: because of its heavy use, new recreational demands usually debut at the WRNF first.

“There are a lot of folks who want commercial operations on the National Forest, and there is only a certain amount available,” Doak said. “There are activities that haven’t even merged in other areas that are major issues in our forests. There are locations that, if we allowed all the people who wanted permits to get permits, we would have about five or six Jeep touring companies on one road.”

For example, several years ago, rafting through Glenwood Canyon wasn’t as popular as it is today. Commercial operators would like to increase their use on the river, but public use has grown to the point where the two groups are experiencing conflicts.

Additionally, Forest Service personnel have entertained a variety of permit applications for new uses on the forest, including Hummer dinner tours in the Holy Cross District, commercial goat-packing treks, landing aircraft on reservoir ice in the winter and a proposal to drop human ashes over wilderness areas.

What proposals are granted depend on the forest’s capacity, Doak said. Such analyses are currently being conducted on Vail Pass, Red Sandstone in the Holy Cross, Maroon Bells and in the Blanco District in the Flat Tops.


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