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Forest Service Plans For Fire Season, Tourist Season Amid COVID-19 Concerns

Elizabeth Stewart-Severy
Aspen Journalism

Through stay-at-home orders and social distancing, the White River National Forest has remained, mostly, open and popular. Now, Forest Service officials are working out details for housing summer staff and opening campgrounds and recreation areas amid concerns about COVID-19. 

Every summer, the White River National Forest brings on more than 100 seasonal employees. Many of them live in tight quarters and bunkhouses, but not this year. 

Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service is working with limited housing — and seasonal firefighters get first dibs.

"Across the nation, that was the highest priority — making sure we have adequate firefighters, on staff, trained up, ready to go for the fire season, which we really never know when it's going to be upon us,” Fitzwilliams said. 

Fire restrictions are in place across the region to protect the safety of emergency responders during the COVID-19 crisis. Still, an abandoned campfire ignited a small wildfire near Carbondale on May 4. Fitzwilliams said the 15 firefighters and one helicopter that responded to the fire took extra precautions. 

“We feel pretty good about where we're at,” he said. “I think all of us worry about a large incident that requires a team and fire camps and big meetings and briefings.”

Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Journalism
Aspen Journalism
Campgrounds in the White River National Forest are now closed, but officials are hoping to open them June 1. That will mean strict guidelines for cleaning and could include some campsite closures to ensure social distancing.

As other forests start to deal with larger fires, Fitzwilliams said agency staffers from across the country are sharing information and lessons they’re learning about fighting fires during the COVID-19 outbreak. Fitzwilliams is considering how to use other resources to protect crews. 

“Potentially, with things going the way they are, we could use more aircraft,” he said. “Even on smaller fires that maybe we'd send a hand crew out to, we'd just order an aircraft to put it out.” 

Seasonal firefighters have arrived and are in training, but many other seasonal workers are delayed until the end of the month or might not arrive at all. 

“We’re not going to have as many people, that’s for sure. So we’re just going to have to adjust. Some things that we planned to get done just won’t,” Fitzwilliams said. “Maybe there’s going to be a few less miles of trail cleared by the end of the year, but in the scope of things, that’s not the end of the world.” 

The agency is working on plans to open campgrounds by June 1. That will require clear guidelines for cleaning facilities and might mean closing some spots to ensure ample distance among campers.

Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Journalism
Aspen Journalism
Cyclists pause to throw a frisbee at the winter closure gate on Maroon Creek Road. Officials with the U.S. Forest Service are working on plans for a reservation system for people to drive to the Maroon Bells instead of running shuttles because of COVID-19-related restrictions.

Fitzwilliams said the agency is also working on plans to open some of the most popular spots in the White River National Forest, including the Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake, with some changes. 

“At least for the foreseeable future, there will be a lot less people up there,” he said. 

The Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake both rely on shuttle services, which will probably not run this summer because of social distancing guidelines that limit the number of passengers. If buses can’t run at capacity, it’s not economically feasible to run them, Fitzwilliams said. 

“So what we’re looking at — both for Hanging Lake and Maroon Bells — is some sort of reservation program where people can drive their own car there, but obviously it’s limited by the amount of parking for both places,” he said. “We won’t have the numbers, but people will be able to have the experience.”

The Forest Service recently implemented a reservation and shuttle service at Hanging Lake, and Fitzwilliams said the agency is taking care now to avoid the kind of overcrowding that led to that program. 

"At Hanging Lake, it was a free-for-all — whoever got to the parking lot first won,” Fitzwilliams said. “And we're not going to resort back to that.”

Details on reservation systems for visiting the Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake are expected in the upcoming weeks. 

Aspen Journalism, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported by its donors and funders, partners with Aspen Public Radio and The Aspen Times on coverage of environmental issues.