Unprecedented use of Jefferson County open spaces creates challenges

County reports damage to trails, habitats in recent weeks

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At Jefferson County Open Space, park rangers often tell visitors seeking to avoid the crowds and parking issues that frequently plague some of the system’s most popular parks to head south to locations like Reynolds Park on Foxton Road in south Jeffco. But on a recent Sunday morning that advice could hardly have been more off the mark. 

“I was there at 9:30 on Sunday morning and the entire lot was full and 17 cars were parked on the road at 9:30,” said Mary Ann Bonnell, the Visitors Services Manager for Jefferson County Open Space. “I promise you I’ve never seen anything like that at Reynolds.”

For Bonnell, the crowding she has seen at Reynolds Park and other parks and trails that make up the county’s open spaces have been poignant indicators that the ongoing pandemic has driven an unprecedented surge in visits to what were already some of the metro area’s most popular outdoor spaces.

It’s a surge that is creating challenges across the system as visitors are left to attempt to hike, run and bike safely in spaces where close contact with other people can now create a health risk while Jefferson County Open Space is now left to manage not only safety but also the toll that heavy use can take on the trails themselves.

The difficulty of managing that challenge became clear late last month when JCOS, Boulder County, the city of Boulder and Denver Parks and Recreation released a joint statement reminding Coloradans to “practice responsible recreation to help protect each other and our shared public lands.”

The release, which stressed the importance of practices like walking through mud and keeping off vegetation when stepping off the trail” and “picking up after dogs and removing their trash” noted that parks under those agencies jurisdictions had recently suffered trail widening, damage to animal habitat and other issues.

Trail widening, in particular, has been an issue for JCOS, Bonnell said with visitors stepping off the trail to avoid mud created by recent rain and snowfall. Typically, JCOS will temporarily close muddy trails after rain and snow events. But recently, JCOS has been declining to close trails for mud because the system as a whole is seeing so much visitation that closing trails will only serve to concentrate people further.

Another issue? Dog poop.

“Two weekends ago I picked up more dog poop bags at North Table Mountain — 21 bags — than I have in a two-mile hike ever,” Bonnell said. “I think we are seeing some folks that maybe haven’t used some of the parks don’t know some of the social norms.

As Jefferson County Space attempts to manage those and other problems, the agency is dispatching rangers and volunteers to provide information to trail users. But while many of their efforts have been focused on education, rangers have also been writing citations for behavioral violations. And they also now have another responsibility directly related to the pandemic: trying to hand out as many county-provided bandanas for visitors to use as face coverings as possible.

Mask use inconsistent, visitors say

Issues like mask use and adherence to social distancing have also become front of mind for many as trail use has spiked.

Daniel Van Hoomisen, who lives in Golden, said that although mask usage depends on the trail system and time of day, he does not feel mask use has been consistent.

“At any given time, I’d estimate 50% of recreators are wearing face coverings,” he said. “Many early morning and late joggers and bikers will not be wearing masks. Mask use is also highly dependent on the user’s activity, mask use is nearly non-existent among climbers (canal climbing zone or North Table) and in general, road and mountain bikers also do not wear masks, although many do have buffs around their necks.”

Golden resident David Wetherington said he thinks mask use is less than 50% and that, combined with the business of the trails, has made them a “no-go” for him recently as he had a kidney transplant one year ago.

“As things get busier and the sentiment from society is that folks like me should “just stay home” I wonder if society is going to carve out some time and space for folks like me to get the fresh air and exercise necessary for our mental health.”

Bonnell said JCOS is also strongly urging residents to wear masks and take other hygiene steps like bringing hand sanitizer with then on hikes — although it has stopped short of requiring visitors to do so.

“Single-track trails are not six feet wide,” said Bonnell. “And so on a hike, you need to bring a face cover. We know it’s not required or mandatory but the respectful thing to do for other visitors on the trail is to cover your face and nose especially as you’re walking past someone else or you’re passing someone else from behind.”

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