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Loved to Death

Camping overuse is threatening Colorado’s wilderness, but BLM improvements offer solutions.

IT’S NO SURPRISE THAT THE best, most beautiful places to recreate in Colorado don’t stay secret for long. Whether hiking trails, hot springs, or campsites, special places risk deterioration once they’ve been discovered. Increased demand means there’s a real risk of loving our wild places to death. And in places where damage becomes extreme, land management personnel are stepping in.
Take Chaffee County, for instance. This central Colorado county encompassing Salida, Buena Vista, and Poncha Springs offers some highly desirable dispersed camping on public lands—the type of camping where you pack in all your supplies, enjoy nature’s quietude, and, ideally, leave no trace.
Many campers choose these types of unestablished sites to get away from the crowds at established campgrounds. Yet, because dispersed areas lack amenities like camp hosts or toilets, these sites are more prone to deterioration over time.
Kalem Lenard, assistant field manager for Bureau of Land Management (BLM), has seen the impacts of high traffic—everything from human waste and toilet paper littering the ground to trash piling up in fire pits. In some places, there’s only bare dirt and trampled vegetation where lush meadows used to thrive.
“We’ve seen a big increase in demand for camping in particular,” Lenard says, referencing Colorado’s increase in population, as well as the incredible recreational amenities available in Chaffee County. “How do we provide these camping experiences that people are looking for, but in a way that we’re still managing for resources?”
Now, the BLM is redoubling its efforts to minimize human impact with a camping management plan for the area. The plan involves adding infrastructure like picnic tables, fire rings, and vehicle barriers to help corral the sprawl that often accompanies dispersed camping.
“We’ll also post signs that set expectations for packing out trash and waste. Eventually, we will be installing permanent fire rings for these sites, which will reduce the amount of burned vegetation, reduce the risk of wildfires, and provide a cleaner overall appearance,” Lenard says.
This type of infrastructure improvement is already happening in neighboring Fremont County. Sand Gulch Campground underwent major improvements last year with the addition of a new parking lot, more sites, improved picnic tables and fire rings, and even five new vault toilets. The improvements came with a price increase: starting April 1, 2024, camping at Sand Gulch Campground would cost $20 per night for a standard site.
Will all these sites become reservation-only, fee-based sites like Sand Gulch? “From the bottom of my heart, I hope not,” Lenard says. But in order to keep campgrounds free of trash and human waste, it takes BLM staff time and resources, and that costs money. “That’s just the reality of what it takes to manage public lands,” Lenard adds.
In Lenard’s experience, most campers don’t want to impact the land in a negative way; they just want to have a nice camping experience. The goal isn’t to diminish the wild nature of these sites, but rather to provide guardrails for proper usage and to protect them for generations to come.
“You will always have some people who can’t follow the rules. But a number of campers pointed out a lack of guidance on our part and, we believe, that guidance can help correct destructive use,” Lenard says. “It’s nice to have the expectations clearly posted with guidance and help people be successful.”

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