Momentum to reopen the Sagehen area to overnight camping has gained some recent attention from county and public lands officials, but there are still hurdles to overcome.
Sustained abuse to the area triggered the closure in 2006, and now the lower lake levels are exposing archeological sites, a concern for Forest Service officials.
District ranger Derek Padilla said additional archeology surveys would be needed before the campground could be reopened, but due to a backlog the agency could not do so until 2015.
Lake recreationists and the Montezuma County commissioners are pushing for a quicker time-frame.
The Sagehen Citizens Group has re-formed to help out, reports founding member Lloyd Powers. He has been negotiating with Padilla and the county to determine what has to happen to reopen the camping area.
“The three issues are cultural resources, trash removal, and law enforcement,” said Powers at a recent presentation to the commission.
One solution would be for the county to pay for the required Class I archeology survey to speed up the process.
“From the archeologists I’ve talked to that survey type is a fairly simple review that would cost around $1,000 and take a few days,” Powers said. “The Forest Service tells me they are open to the idea.”
The commissioners were perplexed that additional surveys were needed.
“Millions of dollars were spent on archeological studies there during the McPhee project. That is why the Anasazi Heritage Center was built to store the collection,” Chappell said.
But the commission was willing to consider paying for one more.
“The agreement would need to be in writing that if we do the cultural resource study, they will do A,B, and C,” advised county attorney John Baxter.
County officials questioned whether the area is technically closed to camping and were critical of public meetings on the matter after the camping ban. The Aug. 18, 2006 Special Closure Order, signed by Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles, states “This Order is in effect until rescinded, or Dec. 31, 2009, whichever event occurs first.”
It has not been rescinded, and December 2009 has since occurred, therefore it could be argued the order is not in effect. Public meetings were held to discuss the problems at Sagehen, but they happened in May and June, 2007 after the closure order.
“It sounds like they wanted a few years to figure out the problems, but then never got back around to it,” said James Dietrich, the community services director for the county.
Besides archeology, the problems of garbage removal, illegal off-road use, and adequate law enforcement were also addressed at the meeting.
“The vandalism and off-road violations were bad, and it continued for years,” said Padilla, who was not involved in the initial closure. “Then the public was given the opportunity to correct the problem but nothing was done so the decision was to initiate the (camping) closure.”
Forest Road 500 was a source of off-road access to the surrounding flat terrain. But is has since been closed and is now the non-motorized Sagehen trail used by hikers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers.
The campground sites and grill pits were located on several spur roads south of Road X. During low water additional controls would be needed to prevent pedestrian and motorized traffic onto the lake bed where cultural resources are exposed.
“Since the newspaper article, I’ve heard both sides. Some want camping there reopened, others say don’t open up that can of worms,” Padilla said. “We’re working with decreased recreation budgets and workforces.”
Forest managers are receptive to a citizens’ group helping to find a solution. Ideas include using volunteers to remove trash, working with the Montezuma County sheriff for additional patrols in the area, educational signs, and monitoring of the area by responsible campers.
Who would manage the 10-15 site campground was discussed. Powers and the commissioners suggested that the neighboring concessionaire at McPhee campground be responsible. But typically a forest service campground cannot charge a fee unless there is potable water, restrooms, and trash service. Sage Hen only has restroom facilities, and repairs to the composting vault toilet are needed.
“We support the efforts to open Sagehen to camping. The lake is touted for recreation and to help the economy, but they closed off the only flat area on the shoreline,” Chappell said. “At normal lake levels, Sagehen is accessible by boat and we will get back to those levels at some point.”
Commissioner Keenan Ertel added the lake has a lot of potential, “but over the years campgrounds, bathrooms, marinas, and breakwaters have all slowly disappeared.”
Powers said it will not be hard to put together a group of volunteers to help out.
“I could walk down the street and get people signed up. We’re willing to do anything to reopen that campground,” he said.