Campsites, roads, wildlife habitat and all the other aspects of the Hermosa Creek area are getting special scrutiny this year as part of an extended planning project.
Congress designated the Hermosa Creek Wilderness and Special Management Area in December.
Now, as part of the law that created the management area, the San Juan National Forest must decide what rules and projects are needed to accommodate demands for recreation, and, at the same time, maintain natural resources, said Columbine District Ranger Matt Janowiak.
These rules and construction projects will be formalized in a plan that will guide decisions for many years in the 70,000-acre management area north-northwest of Durango.
“The plan sets the stage for how the special management area is going to be managed for the whole spectrum, from recreation to grazing to forest health,” he said.
Driving behind Purgatory Ski Resort, on the Hermosa Park Road, past dispersed campsites, to the Upper Hermosa Creek Trailhead, visitors pass some of the areas that may be changing.
The road itself may be widened slightly, and crews may put fresh gravel down because it has degraded over the years, said Chris Phelps, an engineering technician for the Forest Service.
A new parking lot could be built a few hundred feet from the start of the Hermosa Park Road for snowmobilers and cattle ranchers because the road is difficult to navigate with large trailers, he said.
Campsites, old and new
Some campsites face an uncertain future. The Sig Creek Campground is one of the areas that the Forest Service could decide to close because the natural rock shelving would make it difficult to expand, and the small sites designed for tent camping don’t see much use, Janowiak said.
The eight-site campground doesn’t even come close to making the money required to replace its aging toilets.
The dispersed camping sites along the south side of the road will likely be maintained because a rock shelf prevents visitors from setting up camp far from the road.
On the north side of Hermosa Park Road, however, an unmarked spur road leads into an inviting meadow that is popular with campers and hunters. When it fills up, visitors venture farther into the forest – much farther than the 300-foot buffer near the road that is designated for camping, Janowiak said.
For that reason, the Forest Service is considering ways to stop illegal use. One option is to close the whole area with boulders along the road.
“It stops ongoing resource damage that we’re going to continue to see,” he said.
Outfitters could still use the area with a permit.
While some campsites could be closed, the Upper Hermosa Creek Trailhead area could be home to a new campground.
Before the creek crossing, the Forest Service might set up a campground for RVs and a separate tent-only area. The agency is also considering moving the corral and toilets to the new campground and installing an ATV-worthy bridge over the creek.
“Our intentions are to keep people out of the water,” Phelps said.
Vehicles can stir up sediment that can hurt the water quality for the native Colorado cutthroat trout.
But these plans also come with budget considerations. For every improvement the Forest Service plans, it has to weigh whether a building, trail or new recreation area can be maintained into the future.
That’s a tough call when the Forest Service has faced declining budgets for recreation in recent years.
“We’re not even treading water on a lot of trails, a lot of our facilities,” Phelps said.
Sharing the landscape
Under the plan, cattle will be returning to the Hermosa hills. No one has had a permit to graze cattle in the Hermosa area for the past few years.
But grazing will be maintained under the plan, and the Forest Service wants to require ranchers to continuously move cattle to maintain a healthy landscape.
The Forest Service is also re-evaluating its whole trail system in the area and what trail users will be allowed on each one.
The agency needs to protect elk-calving habitat, and that will be a factor in possible seasonal closures and could affect what trails allow use of ATVs and dirt bikes, Janowiak said.
This is one area where the Forest Service is seeking feedback.
“Those are kinds of things we need to be hearing about. Specific types of concerns, specific solutions and reasons why they are requesting to open something up,” he said.
The Forest Service also plans to help the native Colorado cutthroat population to continue to recover by maintaining catch-and-release fishing where populations have been re-established.
The entire draft plan will likely be released for comment in 2017. By the end of 2018, the plan must be finished.