Management plans, stakeholder groups, augmentation proposals, land exchanges… it goes on and on. If one tracks issues important to our valley, the terminology can become heavy. A little levity might be in order to maintain balance. 

I love etymology, the study of words (not bugs), how they got their meanings — how words develop. I love idioms, modismos and onomastics, Patois (the dialect of our Roaring Fork Valley Val D’Aosta pioneers) and everything from palabras and participles to palindromes. Slavic is exotic. I am more comfortable with Latin than Ladin (the Rhaeto-Romanic language still spoken by about 50,000 Tyrolians in the Italian Dolomite Mountains). I am put off by the San Fernando Valley lexicon, totally. It is not of my generation, but I tolerate it (literally). 

The word I find important in environmental defense is heavily used — “sustainability.” 

“Sustainable practices support ecological, human and economic health and vitality; resources are finite and should be used conservatively with a view to long-term priorities and consequences,” says a University of California, Los Angeles reference. It is about our children and grandchildren and the world we leave them. It is the Iroquois First Nations People’s promise to honor their successors for “seven generations to come.”

At the heart of sustainability is carrying capacity, which might have as many different applications as sustainability. Carrying capacity is the number of people, animals or crops that an area can support without environmental degradation. If the needs of a population go unmet that population will decrease until the resource rebounds. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) wrestles with decreasing numbers of elk. Is the decrease in numbers proportionate to the loss of wintering habitat due to development? Last week, Mountain Rescue aided an injured hunter on an e-bike high on Mt. Sopris. The hunter may have been equipped with the latest GPS, archery range finder and radio. What is the impact and carrying capacity of the forest for the “modern hunter?” CPW, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, federal and local land managers and environmental organizations all share the interest and onus of wildlife prosperity.

On a high season trip to the San Juan Mountains this summer, I hiked to one of the range’s most popular alpine lakes. The easy road access near a highway was evidenced by the trailhead parking lot full of 75 vehicles. Often the carrying capacity of National Forests and Parks is determined by our cumbersome shells: the automobile. We had a lovely hike and the trail wasn’t overcrowded.

Luckily, I like my fellow man and realize the necessity, reluctantly or not, to share this precious resource, our public lands. The trail was well-used but not abused. I questioned the carrying capacity on the tundra around the lakeshore where social trail compaction was noticeable but not extreme… yet.

Carrying capacity — is the quality of the experience yet another criteria? Years of study and public participation led to requiring permits to visit Hanging Lake and the Four Pass Loop. In the 1990s, the Colorado River corridor above Moab had far exceeded carrying capacity. Undesignated, dispersed campsites became fouled by feces and trash. A well-designed and well-funded management effort has turned the canyon into an exemplary recreation area.

The heavily used road from Marble to Crystal is well below the USFS threshold for vehicle trips, according to the Aspen Sopris Ranger District. Weekend numbers can stress the safety and quality of experience on the road as well as at the popular Crystal Mill and townsite. The road degradation in the Lead King Basin is primarily from the high volume of off-road vehicles which are notorious for their impacts. 

Grazing allotments are a permit system based on the carrying capacity of cattle on the range of the National Forest. Cattle, wildlife and ranchers benefited from the abundant forage of 2023. Knowing that most years aren’t so bountiful, range has to be managed for the lowest common denominator.

The Pine Creek Cookhouse in Ashcroft, Woody Creek Tavern and Slow Groovin’ BBQ frequently exceed their “grazing allotment,” lacking seating for the tourist traffic. 

This summer a concerted effort was launched to understand recreational pressures and impacts to ecosystems and communities. Funded by a state grant, the Roaring Fork Outdoor Coalition is a group of federal, state, county and local land managers. They have invited community organizations to participate in listening sessions on water, recreation, tourism and business, wildlife and hunting, agriculture and more. 

There are challenges and opportunities for comprehensive management of public lands in our valley. We are at the intersection of environmental protection, conservation and recreation. Hopefully we can benefit from lessons learned from other areas of greater population pressure. We balk at more management and cringe at the thought of infringement on our liberties, but life is a constant balancing act and that equilibrium doesn’t come easily. Engage!

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