Mini-grant supports mighty Wilderness stewardship effort

Healthy Horn Fork project eyes new management tactics for Collegiate Peaks Wilderness

The 1964 Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System, which protects 111 million acres in America from coast to coast. Since then, use of these pristine wildlands has grown exponentially because they are outstanding places to recreate and escape.

The Collegiate Peaks Wilderness encompassing a large portion of western Chaffee County is no exception. Chuck Cichowitz, a local backpacking outfitter, has observed recreator-created impacts along trails to Mounts Harvard and Columbia as well as Bear and Kroenke lakes in the Horn Fork Basin, accessed from the North Cottonwood Trailhead near Buena Vista. 

Backpacking outfitter Chuck Cichowitz completes a campsite assessment in Horn Fork Basin in 2019.

“Over many years, I have seen proliferation of over-sized campfire altars, spreading social trails, and damage to irreplaceable krumholtz trees,” he said.

Cichowitz and his staff at Noah’s Ark Rafting and Adventure Co. are leading the Healthy Horn Fork project supported by a Common Ground mini-grant in 2020. The project identifies areas with sensitive natural resources such as water, wetlands, boreal toad breeding habitat and subalpine trees, then remediates campsites and social trails that threaten resources while encouraging recreation use where it can be accommodated.

Project partners include the U.S. Forest Service, Greater Arkansas River Nature Association (GARNA) and Envision Chaffee County, the three leaders of the Recreation in Balance program that is working to create a community-driven strategy to maintain healthy public lands, quality user experiences and the economic benefits of our tourism economy.

Cichowitz is especially concerned about impacts caused by summit-bound hikers camping near tree-line in the Horn Fork Basin. Up to 100,000 people hike 14,000-foot-peaks in the Sawatch Range every year, according to counts by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.

“Burning a century-old tree for an evening’s fire, leaving human waste and trash; we have to do better,” Cichowitz said. “We must work together to develop and implement both near-term and strategic solutions to accommodate growth and steward the natural resources.”

Krumholtz are stunted trees that grow extremely slowly on high mountain slopes where they are sculpted by continual exposure to fierce, freezing winds. On-the-ground assessments completed by program volunteers in 2019 found 34 dispersed campsites in the basin’s Krumholtz trees, nearly all of them showing damage to trees because limbs are broken off for campfires. Data also shows campsites in boreal toad breeding habitat and dozens of sites within 100 feet of a water source. Erosion, especially around Kroenke Lake, trash and evidence of human waste also were noted.

Cichowitz said he hopes the Healthy Horn Fork project leads to a new Wilderness stewardship model to be adopted in additional areas of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and beyond.

Read more Stories of Impact from Chaffee Common Ground.