Mountain rescue
San Juan County gets $260k GOCO grant for more outreach, rangers

Mountain rescue

A volunteer directs visitors on Leave No Trace practices at the Ice Lakes Base Camp. The high-alpine trail saw an unprecedented number of hikers last summer, more than double the amount in years past./Photo courtesy SJMA

Missy Votel - 03/25/2021

With public lands seeing record numbers of visitors in 2020, the San Juan Mountains are a little worse for the wear. But help is on the way in the form of a $260,000 GOCO grant to San Juan County.

County officials announced the news last week, saying the grant – made possible through lottery ticket sales – would go toward outdoor recreation, stewardship and land protection through a “boots-on-the-ground” approach. Also known as the “San Juan County Public Lands Stewardship and Visitor Education Project,” the effort is a collaboration between San Juan County, Mountain Studies Institute, San Juan Mountains Association, Silverton Chamber of Commerce and San Juan County Sheriff’s Office.

“The recreation pressure in this area combined with the demonstrated impacts of unmanaged recreation make this a compelling request,” GOCO reviewers wrote in approving the grant. 

Last summer, the San Juans experienced a drastic increase in visitation and backcountry use, impacting fragile watersheds, high-alpine tundra and forests already stressed by  drought. Of course the poster child for this was Ice Lakes Basin. In past years, up to 200 hikers per day would make the strenuous trek to the turquoise-blue lake and 13,000-foot surrounding peaks. In 2020, however, Ice Lakes averaged an unprecedented 500 to 650 hikers per weekend day. Over Labor Day Weekend, monitors observed 1,947 hikers and 215 overnight backpackers. The overwhelming crowds have damaged the trail, contaminated the watershed with human waste, trash and toilet paper, and are implicated in a fire that required evacuation of 23 hikers.

But Ice Lakes is not alone – over use and abuse has been noted across the San Juans. As such, the Stewardship Project will offer help in many areas, including the Alpine Ranger program, a Visitor Outreach and Education campaign, and Citizen Science water quality monitoring. Typically providing public safety and education on the Alpine Loop and other parts of the backcountry during the summer, the Alpine Ranger program has been cut in recent years due to a lack of funding. The infusion of GOCO money will pay for several additional rangers as well as vehicle maintenance and fuel. 

The grant will also allow the SJMA to continue its “education base camp” at Ice Lakes and expand it to other hot spots including Highland Mary Lakes and Molas Pass. There will also be “forest ambassadors” at trailheads to talk about Leave No Trace principles as well as a wildfire safety education plan and exhibit.

Finally, the Citizen Science water quality monitoring will train community members to take water samples to be tested for E. coli. Results will be included in outreach materials used by alpine rangers and the Visitor Outreach Campaign.

“Outdoor recreation is essential to our local economy, and the San Juan Stewardship Project is our community’s best chance at stemming the tide of recreation-related resource damage,” project participants said in a statement. “The San Juan Stewardship Project will promote our community’s vitality by enhancing our tourism industry and improving conditions on the ground.”