ASPEN - As the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act draws near, the Forest Service is taking stock of the five wilderness areas in the Aspen area and finding a handful of trouble spots among much splendor.
Overnight use of a few popular places has surged and caused problems to the degree that the Forest Service will reach out to Roaring Fork Valley residents over the next couple of years to ask if management should be changed, according to Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Scott Snelson. The agency plans to raise the sensitive topic of whether limits should be placed on visits to such high-use places as the Four Pass Loop, Snowmass Lake and the Conundrum Valley. However, the public will drive the direction, Snelson said, and the process could produce alternatives to limits.
The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is the most popular of Aspen's wilderness areas and faces the most pressure. There were nearly 33,000 overnight visits to the wilderness area in fiscal 2011 involving about 11,000 individuals. That doesn't count the hordes hiking a trail just for one day. Add them together, and there are issues such as human waste, compacting of the soil in sensitive places such as lakeshores and consumption of wood at high elevations for fires, said Andrew Larson, lead wilderness ranger in the Aspen-Sopris District.
"Thirty thousand nights in the wilderness is a lot of poop," said Larson, who recruits and supervises a staff of as many as six rangers in the summer. The six rangers and Larson patrol 316,035 acres of the most special lands in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass, Hunter-Fryingpan, Holy Cross, Collegiate Peaks and Raggeds wildernesses. (The acreage totals are in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District only. Additional lands in those wilderness areas are within other ranger districts.)
The rangers see the impacts firsthand. At Conundrum Hot Springs last weekend, eight of 18 designated camps had fire rings although signs make it abundantly clear that fires aren't allowed, according to Larson. Fires are banned to prevent damage to the forest. Trees grow slowly at 11,200 feet. There isn't nearly enough deadwood to supply the fires of the multitude of summer visitors.
"All of those fire rings are made from green wood," Larson said.
Forest Service data from overnight permits indicate there were 11,331 user days along the Four Pass Loop, a 26-mile route that crosses Buckskin, Trail Rider, Frigid Air and West Maroon passes and provides some of the most spectacular views in the country. The figure doesn't include power hikers and runners who scream through the route in one day, as Lance Armstrong did last month. The publicity of Armstrong's feat attracted curious day users.
"People went out shortly afterward and tried to match his time," Larson said.
After the loop, Conundrum Hot Springs was the second-most highly visited destination in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, with 5,738 total user days, data shows. Snowmass Lake was next with 4,052 user days, while Capitol Lake had 2,012.
"More than half of (the use) is concentrated in four or five places," Larson said.
The other wilderness areas don't face as much pressure. Pockets are busy, such as Fryingpan Lakes in Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness, but the overall use pales compared with Maroon Bells-Snowmass.
That presents the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District with a conundrum in wilderness management: Do rangers coax hikers to different trails, or do they let the hordes concentrate in specific areas, limiting the damage? Larson said his opinion is that the popular destinations won't suffer additional resource damage if numbers go up slightly. However, if use is directed elsewhere, additional pressure could have dire consequences to mostly undamaged ecosystems.
But it's not that simple, Larson said. Wilderness is supposed to be where humans can find solitude and enjoy the natural beauty of untamed lands. While that's still possible on the vast majority of wilderness lands in the district, solitude is just a dream at the hot spots on weekend nights in June, July and August.
Anyone who has visited Snowmass Lake can attest that its icy blue waters are a marvel. Yet it is surrounded by barren ground. Camping has been banned within 200 feet of the water, and yet the ban is regularly ignored.
"I wouldn't say the shores of Snowmass Lake are a very natural place," Larson said.
The 33,000 total overnight visits in 2011 match the total day and night visits to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in 1987, according to a Forest Service document. That demonstrates the surge in interest in the outdoors. Day use also has exploded, with more residents living in the Roaring Fork Valley and the high number of visitors seeking an outdoor thrill.
On any given Saturday this summer, the parking lots at roughly 10 trailheads for popular hikes were beyond capacity, Larson said. There were cars "driving into the woods to park."
Nevertheless, on the eve of the anniversary of the Wilderness Act's passage, Larson said the legislation did a good job of protecting the designated lands surrounding Aspen.
"There's a few areas where the experience isn't consistent with what wilderness stands for," Larson said. "There's lots of places where it is."
There's a rough plan for looking at management of the hot spots.
The Aspen Ranger District convened an informal organization in 2010 called the Future Forest Roundtable. Its members are federal land managers and representatives of local conservation groups and governments. Forest Service partners in that roundtable will get the process rolling on looking at use of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. The timing hasn't been set.
Snelson said the Forest Service wants the group to engage stakeholder groups and the public in some essential questions.
"Do we think there's reason to change, or is the status quo acceptable?" Snelson said.
If it's deemed not acceptable in the hot spots, the roundtable will ask what options need to be explored.
Limits on permits are "one of the options that needs to be looked at," Snelson said.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service is preparing to mark the golden anniversary of the Wilderness Act with various events celebrating the wild lands. The Aspen-Sopris District will sponsor a free, public lecture in the Wheeler Opera House at 6 p.m. Friday. The featured speaker will be Paul Sutter, professor of environmental history at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His presentation will be based on his book "Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement."
Sutter and local wilderness rangers will discuss how roads, automobiles and a growing culture of outdoor recreation shape wilderness preservation in the U.S. Larson and his colleagues will present a slide show called "The Four Pass Loop: A Wilderness Ranger Patrol."