Fascinating Alpine Loop Use Statistics Revealed in Grad Student’s 2018 Study

A fascinating and timely presentation was made by Kendall Cox on her BLM-sponsored research project on December 19 at the December 19, 2018, meeting of Hinsdale County Commissioners. Cox outlined the preliminary data analysis findings for season 2018’s Alpine Loop Visitor Use Study. SILVER WORLD previously reported on the meeting presentation and that report is now extended ro provide more indepth coverage on the Alpine Loop Survey in light of ongoing OHV discussions.
The study was undertaken and compiled by Kendall Cox, a Western State Colorado University graduate student, as part of her thesis requirement. Cox’s mentor on the project was Sally Thode, who also attended the December meeting. Thode is a former BLM recreation specialist who is currently a graduate faculty field coordinator at WSU. Also present from out-of-town for the December presentation were BLM Gunnison Field Manager Elijah Waters and representatives from the BLM’s recreation and realty departments, including Kirsty Murphy, Jim Lovelace, Megan Mast, and Andy Wales.
Cox’s presentation covered data on visitor numbers traveling on the Alpine Loop during the 2018 season. She emphasized that her numbers were undoubtedly skewed due to forest fires, evacuations, fire restrictions which occurred in the region, as well as heavy smoke which would have been detrimental in June and the first portion of July in both San Juan and Hinsdale Counties.
Due to those extreme circumstances, Cox noted the BLM plans to collect more numbers during the 2019 season.
In accruing the 2018 data, the Visitor Use Study incorporated TRAFx Counters at entry points to the loop, as well as over 100 hours of direct observations and campsite monitoring. Full of colorful pie charts, graphs and maps, Cox’s professional 38 page PowerPoint presentation showed overall vehicle counts of 158,879 with actual “people count” within those vehicles of 313,396 which gave “a daily average,” she stated, ”of about 2,048 visitors per day.”
Acronyms run rampant in this study and though common, a refresher may be needed to appreciate this study. ATV stands for All-Terrain vehicle. They are smaller, unenclosed and ridden astride. OHV is an acronym for Off Highway Vehicle, generally with side-by side seating, which are built to go faster and can include variations on a theme that include utility, plow or farm implements and often can be used synonymously with UTV or Utility Task Vehicle.
SUV is a Suburban Utility Vehicle which is a full- sized motor vehicle of varying sizes, commonly has four-wheel-drive capabilities and sits with higher clearance than a regular automobile. Motorbikes in this study are primarily referencing Off-Highway Motorcycles which includes motocross and dirt or trail bikes, although there is no prohibition against normal motorcycles making the Loop.
Maps in the study reveal Cox’s observation points, “counter” sites, and points where visitors were actually surveyed on their modes of use via a government performance and results act (GPRA) survey. The comprehensive study showed that mode of travel was pretty evenly split by visitors between highway vehicles and OHVs, with only 1 percent representing 1,010, a tiny sliver of overall usage, for non-motorized traffic.
Data breaking out traffic numbers entering the Alpine Loop from various entry points were heavy on the Lake City entrance zone showing 46 percent. Silverton as the entry point was clocked at 37 percent, while the Highway 550 entrance near Ouray was 12 percent as point of entry.
Cox’s pie chart showed Stony Pass with a sliver of just 5 percent of total traffic entering the Loop. Cox again reiterated that visitor numbers at specific entry points may have been skewed by fires which occurred in the region, specifically near Durango, early in the season.
Cox’s study broke out the traffic data in every possible way: Traffic numbers per month during the season showed May with just over 49,000 vehicles and a high count in July with 55,687 total vehicles counted. Average traffic by day of the week was pretty evenly split seven ways. A comparative chart registered shoulder versus main season traffic counts and another chart revealed no surprises as it documented daily traffic totals denoting specific events such as races, 4th of July, peak leaf colors and forest closures due to the 2018 fires.
For the summer of 2018, Cox’s data showed 50 percent or 79,487 of the Alpine Loop traffic traveled in regular highway vehicles, while 49 percent traveled in OHVs and just 1 percent, 1,017, of those on the Alpine Loop were non-motorized, indicating bicycles (28 percent) horseback riders (.03 percent) hikers(.33 percent).
She further broke down the numbers to show that of the 50.03 percent highway vehicles, most were jeeps clocking in at 17.4 percent. Trucks incorporated another 12.9 percent of those numbers. 7.8 percent were shown to be SUVs of some sort.
The data showed only 1.3 percent of the highway vehicles comprised commercial tours, while another 1.4 percent were campers. A surprising 5.6 percent of vehicles on the Loop were plain old passenger cars.
A similar chart broke out the 49.33 percent of Off- Highway Vehicles (OHVs) counted in the study. 1.9 percent were rental OHV/UTV’s. Motorbikes claimed 8.2 percent, while UTV or OHVs comprised the lion’s share of 30.7 percent. Smaller ATVs cornered 8.6% of this niche.
A comparative traffic count taken from 2015 showed traffic numbers on Corkscrew Pass went from 9,556 to 19,695 in 2018. Eureka grew from 43,720 in 2015 to 2018 traffic numbers showing 61,804. Stony Pass remained steady showing 14, 282 in 2015 and dropping slightly to 13, 248 in 2018.
Comparing similar 1997 study data to 2018 usage revealed a drop in SUV/jeep/truck traffic on the Alpine Loop from 75.8 percent in 1997 to 38 percent last year. In 1997, only a minimal 2.6 percent was recorded for all ATV usage and no OHV traffic at all was recorded in the 1997 study.
Popularity of OHV recreation has exploded in the intervening two decades. The 2018 findings showed 30.7 percent UTV/OHV traffic numbers and 8.6 percent ATV traffic, for a combined 39.3 percent slice of the traffic pie which now competitively rivals the 38 percent jeep/SUV/4-wheel drive traffic.
Noting license plates from almost every state in the union, the study cited 54.88 percent of vehicles which were observed carried Colorado plates, with 12.94 percent having Texas plates, and 3.52 percent from Oklahoma.
Utah license plates were counted on 5.38 percent of the Loop vehicles, while New Mexico vehicles garnered 6.24 percent. A mere half of one percent of the vehicles on the Alpine loop were licensed in Montana.
A number of graphs clocked numbers of area campers, as well as results from tourists who participated in the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) Survey. These survey results revealed visitor activity preferences cited in both 2014 and 2018, Riding/Driving OHVs garnering 55 percent, up slightly from 2014. Other front runners chosen from the long list of potential activities were sightseeing, hiking-walking, and driving for pleasure.
Cox acknowledged that many of the categories participants could choose in the activity survey overlapped. Also covered in the survey were visitor information ratings on usefulness of brochures and maps, area internet information and public awareness of rules and regulations registering an improvement from 36 percent to 52 percent in the “very good” category.
Only 18 percent of the survey takers cited birdwatching or wildlife viewing as their focus while on the Loop. Participants in the GPRA survey also registered their feelings on the conditions of the roads, the condition of trails and cleanliness of facilities showing few surprises.
Following the half-hour presentation, then- Commissioner Dozier stated, “This is really helpful, really useful. The data you collected was the right information.”
Elijah Waters replied, “Use these numbers, digest them and see where you want to go.”
He added, “this data has an economic impact on the community.”