San Juan County has been awarded more than $250,000 to help address the impacts of increasing outdoor recreation in its backcountry.

Great Outdoors Colorado, which receives money from the state’s lottery, granted San Juan County $260,000 to “advance outdoor recreation, stewardship and land protection” to meet “urgent needs and priorities” in the San Juan Mountains.

“The recreation pressure in this area combined with the demonstrated impacts of unmanaged recreation make this a compelling request,” GOCO said in a statement. “This proposal provides an intriguing balance of employment, public education, science and stewardship.”

The effort, called the San Juan Stewardship Project, is a partnership with Mountain Studies Institute, the Silverton Chamber of Commerce and the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office.

Visitation to the San Juan Mountains was already increasing in recent years, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed more people toward the outdoors, resulting in unprecedented numbers of visitors in 2020.

At the popular Ice Lakes Trail, for instance, about 200 hikers a day used to make the trek to the turquoise tinted lakes. In 2020, however, an average of 500 to 650 people hit the trail on any given day.

Over the busy Labor Day Weekend, nearly 2,000 hikers and more than 200 overnight backpackers were seen at Ice Lakes.

It all culminated this fall when a wildfire, believed to be human-caused, broke out off the trail to Ice Lake, threatening the town of Silverton and requiring the emergency evacuation of more than 20 hikers who were in the area.

“Unfortunately, these growing crowds have damaged the trail and contaminated the watershed with human waste, trash and toilet paper,” MSI said in a statement. “This trend has been noted across numerous popular destinations in the San Juan Mountains.”

The San Juan Stewardship Project seeks to help on several fronts.

Money will be directed to support the Alpine Ranger Program, which will provide a public safety and education presence at outdoor recreation hot spots throughout San Juan County.

Money will be also be used to support several seasonal alpine rangers, as well as provide funding for vehicle maintenance and fuel.

“Typically, alpine rangers patrol the Alpine Loop and other parts of the backcountry during the high-traffic summer season, but the program has been reduced over the past few years due to funding limitations,” MSI said.

Also, a visitor outreach and education campaign will attempt to reach visitors and talk best practices in the backcountry.

San Juan Mountains Association will continue to host an “education base camp” at the Ice Lakes trailhead, which has been seen as effective in years past. The effort hopes to expand to other popular destinations, such as Highland Mary Lakes and Molas Pass.

“The Forest Ambassador program will target trailheads to talk with visitors about Leave No Trace principles,” MSI said. “A series of videos and outreach materials will be produced for online and in-person outreach.”

With the continuing high fire danger that’s been seen in the past few summers, the Wildfire Safety Education Plan and Exhibit will try to educate outdoor visitors about fire regulations and best practices.

And, a citizen science water-quality monitoring program will launch to engage community members to learn more about the impacts of recreation on local watersheds.

“They will be trained to take water samples that will then be analyzed for E. coli,” MSI said. “The data collected will be put into outreach materials, which will then be used by (members of the project).”

Public land agencies have said in the past few months they expect another busy summer season this year.

“The San Juan Stewardship Project is our community’s best chance at stemming the tide of recreation-related resource damage that has spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic,” MSI said.

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