ASPEN - The crowds at the popular Conundrum Hot Springs, south of Aspen, continued to prove the biggest wilderness challenge for local U.S. Forest Service rangers this summer, but compliance with the recently imposed no-dogs rule was promising, according to one official.
"Conundrum is a conundrum, and it has been one for many, many years," said Martha Moran, recreation staff supervisor with the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.
The Forest Service closed the hot springs to dogs in 2010 and stepped up enforcement of the regulation this year. From late June through the end of summer, rangers issued 108 written warnings, wrote five citations and issued six verbal warnings at Conundrum, according to a summary the agency compiled.
Of the seven rangers who worked in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness this year, only one - lead wilderness ranger Andrew Larson - was authorized to write citations for offenses.
And, despite the tally of warnings and tickets at Conundrum, Larson was enthused.
"We were really pleasantly surprised with the compliance," he said. "I was fairly happy, for it being the second year of a really unpopular rule."
Dogs are permitted as far up the Conundrum trail as Silver Dollar Pond from the Aspen side and Triangle Pass from the Crested Butte side. This year, a number of backpackers set up camp at Silver Dollar Pond, 5.5 miles from the Aspen trailhead. Leaving their dogs there, hikers could finish the 2.5-mile trek to soak in the springs, Larson said.
Those who received a citation or warning about a dog at the hot springs were directed to leave, he added.
Not every incident that led to a warning at Conundrum involved a dog, though. There are 18 designated campsites near the hot springs, but the area gets such heavy use, illegal camping is an issue. So are campfires, which are not permitted.
"I was up there one weekend and talked to 120 people in one day," Larson said.
While some hot springs enthusiasts resist additional management of the area, others have lobbied for a reservations system for the limited campsites, according to Moran.
The Forest Service hasn't moved to restrict the number of people who can be there, but Conundrum is one of two sites in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness where users are asked to pack out their waste. The agency began supplying human poop bags for hot springs visitors in 2009.
Rangers this year asked everyone they encountered at Conundrum if they were using the bags, Larson said. Thirty-five percent of the visitors said they were.
"That's 35 percent less waste up there," Larson said.
Past testing of water at the springs has indicated the presence of fecal coliform in the water, prompting the bag approach.
Visitors to Snowmass Lake, possibly the second-most-heavily used site in the wilderness area, are also asked to use bags, but they are available only at the Snowmass Lake trailhead outside Snowmass Village. Hikers dropping down to the lake from elsewhere in the wilderness trail system, including the increasingly popular Four Pass Loop, don't encounter a bag dispenser, Larson noted. As a result, fewer backpackers at Snowmass Lake pack out their waste, he said.
For next year, Larson is contemplating steps that could reduce illegal camping - generally within a stone's throw of a trail - on the Four Pass Loop. Campsites are supposed to be at least 100 feet from trails and streams.
Larson has logged GPS coordinates for 55 recommended campsites on the popular loop hike.
"I want to publish maps and coordinates so people can download them to their GPS. Even after dark, they could follow the GPS to a really good campsite that's off the trail," he said.
Also on Larson's to-do list: working to make U.S. Forest Service regulations about places such as the Four Pass Loop and Conundrum Hot Springs rise to the top of a Google search. That way, people can find accurate information before they, for example, plan a Conundrum outing with their dog.
Educating the public about wilderness rules and etiquette is also the focus for the ranger crew, according to Moran. This year's rangers logged 4,834 contacts with wilderness users, primarily in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, but only 13 citations were issued. In addition, the crew tallied 518 written warnings and 83 verbal warnings.
Incidents at Snowmass Lake and Geneva Lake, separated by Trail Rider Pass (part of the Four Pass Loop), resulted in three citations and 68 written warnings - second behind Conundrum for ranger enforcement.
"We're not out there to write tickets," Moran said. "We're out there to be stewards of the wilderness."
An Aspen Environment Foundation grant helped fund the ranger program.