Chico Flat Campground shuts down for season

Photo Courtesy of Keepers of the Kern
Keepers of the Kern provides essential cleanup services in parks across the Kern Valley, including Chico Flat, where there are concerns about high human waste levels.

Unforeseen levels of human waste, COVID-19

BY Colby McCoy

Chico Flat Campground, a popular campsite for residents and travelers, has closed for the season due to high levels of human-related damage, the USDA Forest Service said in a release.

The closure went into effect on Nov. 7. It will continue through May 27, 2021, as rangers and locals work to replant lost vegetation from increasing human activity levels and low levels of precipitation. U.S. Forest Service officials are hoping that winter and spring will bring much-needed precipitation to the campground. During this replanting period, volunteers and forest staff will also be picking up any remaining trash.

“This year was nothing like we’ve ever experienced because of various reasons including COVID-19 lockdowns, the Forest Service deciding to keep the forest open and we’re the only ones open, so we had a tremendous amount of people,” Rex Hinkley, president of the board for Keepers of the Kern, told the Kern Valley Sun. His organization has been leading cleanup efforts at Chico Flat.

“Every day was like a holiday weekend,” Hinkley said, noting that Chico Flat was one of the few campgrounds to remain open during the pandemic. “There were new people who weren’t familiar with camping and cleanliness protocols for rivers. When they go down to that beach area, especially on the southern end of the campground, people destroy the vegetation on the river bank to camp.”

On top of that, Hinkley said that camp visitors this year seemingly used the riverbank as a toilet since bathroom facilities are not nearby. This put a particular strain on Keepers for the Kern, who have had to interact with human contaminates of all sorts. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been significant concerns that cleanup volunteers could be exposed to the virus.

Hinkley’s organization began cleaning up the park in July but quickly told the Forest Service it would not be returning.

“I wasn’t going to subject my volunteers to potential virus contamination,” he said. “People [park visitors] were rude and combative against my volunteers.”

Indeed, 2020 has proved to be a challenging year for Chico Flat, with pandemic-driven human activity at unseen levels leading to egregious cases of littering and vegetation loss.

For volunteer organizations like Keepers of the Kern, the risks of coronavirus infection and untold amounts of waste proved to be insurmountable obstacles, pointing to the implicit difficulties crucial park cleanup groups are facing during the pandemic.

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