Supporters of Sagehen camping encounter a new test

It may take more than a routine archaeology survey and volunteer efforts to reopen the Sagehen recreation area to overnight camping.

Since June, advocates have been pushing for re-establishing camping at the site, on the southern shores of McPhee Reservoir off County Road X. Sagehen is within the San Juan National Forest, and is closed dusk to dawn.

Citizens for Sagehen and the Montezuma County commissioners have been negotiating with district ranger Derek Padilla for a way to reopen the campground, which was closed in 2006 after prolonged vandalism and misuse.

Last month, a tentative agreement was reached in which the county would pay for a Class 1 archaeology review to fast-track procedures and reopen the site.

However, Padilla revealed in a Dec. 13 letter that a more complete environmental analysis will be required, and there is no guarantee it would open to camping.

“Over time, the area has experienced changes due to erosion, wave action from the lake, and increased exposure due to lower water levels,” Padilla wrote. “A Class 1 review could identify that further physical (Class 3) survey would be required to make a determination on the impacts of dispersed camping in this area.”

Additional studies would evaluate impacts on wildlife, recreation use, law-enforcement, sanitation and illegal off-road travel.

The 2006 closure order expired Dec. 31, 2009, and was continued after it was included into the Boggy Glade/Travel Management Plan finalized on Dec. 5, 2012.

Because the final decision “addressed the Sagehen area and the continuance of the prohibition of dispersed camping, another environmental analysis would be required to assess the impacts of allowing this activity,” Padilla wrote.

Padilla also noted that even if the county commits resources that would expedite the environmental analysis process, “the resulting decision could be to continue the current management.” Public comment and meetings on the matter will also be needed.

“We want to make sure we hear from all sides on whether camping should be allowed there,” he said. “Our current workload and budget restrictions prevent us from considering this issue until 2015.”

The commissioners disagreed with the wording of ‘dispersed camping’ pointing out the plan is for designated sites only as it was set up previously.

Use at the McPhee campground (80 sites) and House Creek campground (69 sites) is underutilized, officials said.

Both campgrounds are operated by Rocky Mountain Recreation, under contract with the Forest Service.

In July, August and September 2012, occupancy at the House Creek campground was 25 percent, 18 percent, and 2 percent, respectively; and at McPhee campground, 16 percent, 17 percent and 18 percent, respectively.

In 2013, occupancy for House Creek dipped to 17 percent in July and 14 percent in August. Occupancy rebounded in September, at 10 percent occupancy.

Sagehen was popular because it at normal water levels, it had easy boat access and was open year-round, whereas House Creek is closed during winter.

Another concern is the potential need for boat inspections at Sagehen to prevent cross-contamination in McPhee and its irrigation canals from invasive species such as the zebra mussel, which has caused problems at other reservoirs.