All hands are on deck in Crested Butte where pressure from crowds wanting to experience the good life in a mountain town mean local groups need to find creative ways to keep the dream alive.
BY J.B. GREEN
Featured image by Jesse Levine/reelmotioninc.com
These days it seems that once idyllic mountain towns like Crested Butte are under pressure at every turn. Pressure from visitation. Pressure from more and more people who can work remotely or retired early and want to live the dream. Pressure from reduced housing availability due to Airbnb and VRBO. All of it begs the question—how do these small, towns cope? How do they keep the soul that makes them desirable spots to live in the first place?
THE SECRET IS OUT
On a beautiful morning in July there’s no shortage of people at trailheads in Crested Butte, Colorado. Most are from out of town. They’ve come to visit one of the idyllic mountain towns in the Mountain West. A town that is now doing its best to cope with a variety of challenges. These challenges have motivated several of the local entities to work together to try to address the challenges, and find a path forward.
Dave Ochs moved to Colorado in 2001. “When I was living in New Hampshire I was 26 at the time. I had a pretty decent job. I realized that if I don’t get out and go west I might not ever. I packed up the truck, me and the dog. I was hoping to go somewhere in Colorado. I had heard of Breck, Aspen, Vail. I was just getting into cycling. I had no idea Crested Butte even existed. Driving into this town is like searching for something you never even knew existed, and I found the fairy tale place to live. I was lucky enough to find it, as it was before the internet and cell phone age. I turned up the road on a whim, because I thought I could possibly get to Aspen that way looking at the map, and was lucky I did. I saw how magical the town is.”
Ochs is the Executive Director of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (CBMBA). Founded in 1983, it’s the oldest known mountain bike club. They maintain over 450 miles of singletrack near Crested Butte. They work to improve trails, conserve landscapes, organize group rides, and build community through volunteer trail days. They also manage a professional trail and stewardship crew called the Crested Butte Conservation Corps (CBCC).
Their strategies have changed over the years as the pressure on the trails has grown. “In 2003 I joined the Board. We were all volunteer until 2016. I was the first Executive Director, and the creation of that position was one of the reasons we were able to create paid staff positions. A director can put time and effort into fundraising. In addition, the Director is also responsible for finding grants, soliciting community support, and putting together a full time trail crew. One of the first things we did was create the CBCC. That started in 2017. It was a direct answer to trails getting overcrowded and out of control. In addition, it’s a vast trail network that needed more tending to. The Forest Service doesn’t have the resources to handle it. Also, the fingers were pointed at us as far as increased crowds, and camping getting out of control. We started the Conservation Corps to show people we believe in stewardship, maintenance, and upkeep.”
There are several other entities in Crested Butte that are working proactively to manage the challenges that the valley faces. When asked about increased visitation, Joseph Carlson, Acting Recreation Staff Officer for the Gunnison Ranger District of the United States Forest Service (USFS) said “although many visitors want to do the right thing, many have not had the exposure to Leave No Trace ethics, which unfortunately leads to impacts on the environment such as camping in areas that have sensitive natural resources, driving off roads, and unattended campfires. There is no one to pack out visitors’ trash or pets’ waste. It is the responsibility of our visitors to be good stewards to the forests they visit, and pack out their trash. Unfortunately, year after year garbage and waste continues to be left in the forest. In addition, there are impacts to peoples experience in the forest with the overcrowding.”
Bill Ronai is the President of the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism & Prosperity Partnership (TAPP). When speaking about increased visitation, he said “it puts pressure on our retailers and restaurants at a time when they are having trouble filling their positions. It has created stress in the system. In 2020 the increase put pressure on campsites and trails. There were people who had not spent time in the outdoors, and they went outdoors.” Executive Director John Norton added “we’ve seen the biggest increase in the past five or six years. Primarily in the summer.” Gunnison County maintains historic visitation numbers. For the month of July, which is the busiest month, these are the numbers for the past few years:
2020: 91,994 (31% higher than 2019)
It’s not only the number of visitors, it’s the attitude of many of them. Ochs said “entitlement is another big downside. It’s awful. That’s something we have a problem with. It’s difficult with as much work as we do to provide education and information. There is a basic etiquette that we would hope precedes someone visiting. But there are people who visit, think of it as vast open space, and then do what they want because it’s open land. Folks create camping spots, put roads where there aren’t roads, trespass, and leave gates open. In some folks’ eyes, they just didn’t know it. There is a mix of malicious entitlement and naïve entitlement. There is simply a lack of knowledge of proper etiquette. That lead to conflicts with local ranchers and land owners.”
This increase in visitation has led to a variety of impacts. When asked about resource damage on USFS land, Carlson stated “we see escaped campfires, development of non-system routes, and sanitation problems. Also, trash being left on the forest as well as pet waste along trails.” When it comes to camping issues specifically, Carlson continued by saying “new sites continue to pop up as visitors simply add more campsites to each designated spur or illegal route, usually in undesirable locations. Fire scars and fire rings proliferate in these areas despite regular camp cleanups with volunteer groups, paid staff, and interns. Responding to unattended and escaped campfires is also a regular occurrence. For most campers, this situation has created an undesirable user experience due to crowding. Again, this is why the designated campsite model was implemented in the Crested Butte area.”
In addition to the challenges caused by increased visitation, the rise in housing cost has greatly affected the ability of local employers to retain employees. In 2020, the median home price went above $1 million, a 38% increase in one year. The median price of a single family residence has increased from around $450,000 in 2011 to $1,350,000 in 2021. There were 42 transactions of $1 million or more in 2020, versus 27 such transactions in 2019, a 56 percent increase.
In an attempt to address this issue, the Town of Crested Butte has created a lot of deed restricted housing over the past few years. “There are a couple of ways this can work: one is to require that new construction incorporate some kind of long-term rental unit (e.g., a garage apartment). By restricting these accessory units to long-term rental, and prohibiting their use as vacation rentals, their rents tend to remain affordable. The second approach is to build new houses that have restricted resale prices. Typically, the resale price will be capped at the initial purchase price plus some small annual percentage increase. This prevents their prices from escalating quickly and keeps them affordable. In reality, though, there is far more demand for affordable housing than can be met by the current inventory of deed restricted units. The impact of this is that many local workers are being forced to move down valley and commute to Crested Butte from Gunnison,” said William Spicer of the Gunnison County Assessor’s Office. Because of that, the average price for a two-bedroom rental in and near Gunnison has jumped more than $400 since 2016, according to a recent report commissioned by the Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority, now nearly matching Crested Butte prices. Gunnison home prices have risen 57 percent during that time as well.
This has created a demand that simply can’t be met. “Another issue we face is local workers establishing summer residency on the forest. Though establishing residency is illegal, it is occurring at a substantial rate and contributing to numerous impacts. In addition to increased human waste and resource issues that stem from continual occupancy, residents who occupy Forest Service lands for the entire summer season occupy desirable campsites and force visitors to push out into un-impacted areas in order to find a suitable campsite. This is an ongoing issue, but the problem has been exacerbated due to the housing crisis many mountain towns are currently facing,” said Carlson.
The rising cost of living has also affected the CBMBA’s ability to retain volunteers. “It has affected the trail crew. More and more people are moving down to Gunnison. It’s been more difficult finding local help. For the volunteer part, we’re still doing well. Most volunteers live in Crested Butte, but we have a good percentage of second home owners who volunteer. Some even plan trips in the summer to allow them to volunteer. We have some front range supporters as well. 75-80% is local. People who volunteer want to be part of the community trail builds and community volunteer work,” said Ochs.
These challenges put immense pressure on towns such as Crested Butte. This pressure has motivated the USFS, Gunnison County, the CBMBA, and a variety of other local entities to work together to address the challenges with the goal of maintaining Crested Butte as a beautiful place to visit and an enjoyable place to live.
“Through CBMBA and the CBCC, as well as our own initiatives under the heading of ‘destination management’, resources have been put into educating the public that uses the trails and campsites, as well as funding the CBCC” said Bill Ronai, of TAPP. John Norton added “We saw a record number of campers in 2020. That led to designated camping spots in five of the valleys in summer of 2021. So many mountain bikers come here that the trail maintenance and restoration has become a bigger focus, led by the CBCC and the National Forest Foundation (NFF). The NFF manages a variety of funding sources, including the Gunnison Stewardship Fund. The Gunnison Stewardship Fund is funded locally by businesses and outfitters in the valley like Irwin Guides, Scenic River Tours, Gunnison County Metropolitan Recreation District, and Gunnison Energy, along with national contributors like Vail Resorts. We are able to increase funding for CBMBA by flowing their money through the NFF. TAPP used to donate money to CBMBA, but by giving the money through a donor advised fashion to NFF, and telling them to earmark it for CBMBA, they have matched the donation, so the CBMBA gets more funding.”
Dave Ochs added “we didn’t have the infrastructure in place to accommodate the increased visitation – trailheads, bathrooms, signage. These challenges were compounded recently with COVID-19. 2020 was an explosion of visitors. Trailheads popped up where there weren’t trailheads. We did a lot of work at the beginning of 2021 to prepare for this year, including designated camping spots in all of the drainages. The impacts weren’t as bad this year.”
Another example of the efforts of CBMBA is how they have addressed the stress on remote trailheads, which are far from town, and in many cases have limited parking. “The biggest effect is the number of cars at remote trailheads. The word trailhead is used figuratively – there is not a trailhead there. The driving has increased dramatically. A great example is 403 Trail. 403 is at the top of Washington Gulch Road. It used to be on private property. We worked with the land owner to get the trailhead off of private property, and put in a more sustainable and better route to access it. However, there’s no infrastructure, and it’s a famous hiking and mountain biking trail. Here’s this beautiful trailhead, but it can only accommodate a maximum of eleven cars. There’s 35-40 on a given day.”
One of the priorities of the USFS has been designated campsites. “The Gunnison Ranger District (GRD), alongside our stellar partner CBCC, has implemented designated camping in the Crested Butte area, as unregulated, dispersed camping was causing numerous negative impacts. Years of dispersed camping along Forest Service roads has resulted in resource damage, escaped campfires, development of non-system routes, and sanitation problems. Although GRD had taken actions in the past to try and manage dispersed camping, due to the ongoing impacts and increase of visitation, a model similar to other forests was developed to designate campsites. This work would not have been possible without our local partners in the Crested butte area. The designation of campsites and requirement for visitors to camp only in numbered sites ensures that sites are sustainable, away from riparian areas, and eliminates the development of additional campsites in undisturbed areas. The installation of fire rings at each campsite, and requirement to have campfires only in metal fire rings, reduces escaped campfires, eliminates multiple, sprawling fire rings at individual sites, and encourages campfires of an appropriate size (some user-constructed fire rings are greater than 6-foot diameter). These actions of clearly defining all available campsites and access routes also curtail the continued proliferation of non-system routes,” said Carlson.
One of the most impactful changes when it comes to local entities working together was the creation of the Gunnison County Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee (STOR). STOR is facilitated by Joe Lavorini, the Gunnison County Stewardship Coordinator. Joe is also a Program Manager with the NFF.
“The committee was born out of One Valley Prosperity Project (OVPP) in 2017. That project set priorities for county and community leaders for the next ten years. There were four areas of focus – affordable housing, economic resiliency, sustainable tourism and outdoor recreation, and community health. OVPP Partners created an action plan that led to the creation of the county sanctioned STOR committee in 2018. An entity becomes a member by applying to the Board of County Commissioners. There are currently 22 representatives on the committee. STOR membership currently includes the USFS, BLM, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, the National Park Service, Gunnison County, Gunnison County Tourism & Prosperity Partnership (TAPP), Gunnison County Metropolitan Recreation District, the Chamber of Commerce, Vail Resorts, and user groups including ranchers, environmental advocates, mountain bikers, and water managers. The local municipalities of Mt. Crested Butte, Town of Crested Butte, and the City of Gunnison are also members. At-large members of the public participate as well. The goal is to be an effective community body to make tough decisions that includes as many perspectives as possible. Supporting funders include Colorado Parks & Wildlife and Great Outdoors Colorado, which is funded from lottery proceeds. Great Outdoors Colorado requires matching contributions. The matching contributions come from the Gunnison County Stewardship Fund, which is managed by the NFF. The Stewardship Fund is a pot of funds that’s supported by about a dozen different community business donors. These businesses are critical to supporting local organizations and our public lands. The money then gets doled out through grants to trails projects, habitat projects, facilities, and infrastructure,” said Joe.
The goal of STOR is to try to find a balance. It promotes stewardship just as much as recreation. STOR drove the process of creating dispersed camping in 2021. Joe stated “we had a subcommittee that worked through that. The committee decided what amenities were needed, and which drainages to focus on. STOR worked with the Forest Service and local partners. CBMBA were the boots on the ground. STOR secured funding and communicated with the public. The County hired the STOR Corps. to monitor the camping change, and to survey the public on how well it’s working. They were out there every weekend, and peak hours during the week.” When asked if they were aware of the changes before they came, many visitors said yes. Locals supported the changes as well.
Shared Stewardship is a philosophy that the USFS is relying on to address issues on public lands. The goal is to work cross boundary in a collaborative manner in order to scale up and meet the challenge, as the USFS recognizes that they can’t do it alone. One example of this is the North Valley trails proposal. Carlson stated that “the increase in outdoor recreation has increased the need for management responses to impacts on public lands. With the increasing number of visitors to public lands, the Forest Service needs to be more strategic about where facilities and trails are placed, and also, where we need to provide for open spaces for wildlife to roam. This proposal is an attempt to concentrate uses near heavily impacted areas and allow for some open spaces beyond. This proposal was received from the Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation (STOR) committee. The Forest Service modified the proposal based on internal resource concerns and enhanced it with local knowledge.”
Mountain towns have never faced more pressure when it comes to housing availability, the cost of living, and visitation numbers. Thankfully, motivated residents continue to get involved to address the challenges. “Visitation is increasing; we’re meeting it head on,” says Lavorini.
So who can save the soul of mountain towns? In Crested Butte, now more than ever, it’s all hands on deck.