Turds, Trash, and Tire Tracks: The Car-Camping Pendulum Swings Again11 September 2021
|1925 Ford Model T touring car (Wikipedia).|
A century ago, our national forests had a problem. Behind the wheels of their Ford Model T’s and other cars, Americans re-discovered camping. Soon over-used favorite camping areas were littered with trash, human waste, multple firepits, unauthorized roads, and all the other bad effects.
The US Forest Service was fifteen years old and trying to get a handle on “scientific” forest management, firefighting, and grazing management. It was part of the Department of Agriculture. (“We’re tree-farmers,” an old-school district ranger once told me.)
Recreation management was not on their to-do list. That was the National Park Service’s job—different agency, different department—the Interior Department.
|Davenport Campground, 1920s, San Isabel National Forest,
southern Colorado, designed by Arthur Carhart as one
of the first automobile campgrounds.
The Model-T generation changed all that, driving and camping everyplace instead of taking the train and shuttling to a big resort hotel like the Old Faithful Inn.
By the early 1920s the Forest Service hired landscape architect (and wilderness advocate) Arthur Carhart to figure how to manage these automobile recreationists.
For more on Carhart’s influence on southern Colorado, start here: “Looking for Squirrel Creek Lodge, Part 1.”
The Forest Service built campgrounds up through the 1960s and 1970s, but the 1980s — the Reagan years — saw the pendulum swing the other. A couple of Carhart’s recreational areas near me were closed in the early 1980s “due to lack of funding for maintenance.” In the 1980s and 1990s, local Forest Service managers sang the praises of “dispersed camping.”
(But Daveport Campground, pictured above, was re-built in the early 2000s to re-create its 1920s appearance. Retro-camping with federal dollars — who knew?)
Everything Old Is New Again, Including Turds and Trash
Some people blame the COVID pandemic. I don’t know, but suddenly car-camping (and hiking) is really popular. Some headlines:
More than 40% of people say nature, wildlife and visiting local green spaces have been even more important to their wellbeing since the coronavirus restrictions began.
Closing heavily used campsites is public lands “triage” as Forest Service and local officials struggle to protect natural resources from a growing wave of backcountry campers and explorers this summer.
As events were canceled last summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, other activities — like hiking Quandary Peak, McCullough Gulch and Blue Lakes trails — skyrocketed in popularity. The influx of visitors to these areas last summer caused a barrage of issues like speeding, congestion, lack of parking and safety concerns
Some areas of Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests that allowed “dispersed” camping will be converted to day-use only
Your bucket list should go beyond national parks. This decision tree will help you find lesser known locations with half the crowds. [Also more Instagrammable.—CSC]
Even if it is true that headliner national parks (like Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon) saw fewer visitors due to COVID-related shut-downs, camping on close-in public lands has exploded. Here in Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park visitation is up 44 percent over ten years, and the NPS wants a reservation system permanently. Not everyone likes that idea.
Suddenly, that loosely managed “dispersed camping” is being managed, heavily. There is a new term: “designated dispersed.”
Rocky Mountain Recreation will begin managing 99 designated dispersed camp sites on the South Platte Ranger District portion of Rampart Range Road starting Friday, May 21. Each campsite is numbered, and designated parking areas are marked. Thirty of the campsites are available for reservation through recreation.gov and 69 sites are first come, first serve. Campers will be issued a tag to hang in their vehicle. Reserved sites will have a “Reservation” card posted at the campsite with the name of the visitor.
On the Pike and San Isabel National Forests, the popular Rampart Range dispersed camping area near Woodland Park now has a complicated map. (Facebook link here.)
In the long run, maybe the USFS just needs more developed campsites, with regular maintenance, campground hosts, the whole business — or else a concessionaire to run them.