The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District will seek ideas from the public on how to better manage areas of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness that are getting overwhelmed during summers, according to District Ranger Karen Schroyer.
Public meetings could be held as soon as the Forest Service’s 2015 fiscal year, which starts in October, she said. There is no definitive plan for collecting public comment, but Schroyer said it is something she wants to try to work into the 2015 work plan.
“In the short time I’ve been here, my eyes have been opened to (the issues of) the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness,” Schroyer said. “From what I’ve learned, we’re not meeting the intent of wilderness area in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.”
Schroyer became the district ranger in the Aspen area in January.
The intent of wilderness when it was created by Congress 50 years ago was to leave designated lands untouched by the hands of man. That’s not happening at Conundrum Hot Springs and on the Four Pass Loop, she said.
The beauty of the Maroon Bells area attracts international attention — and problems from so many visitors in such a compressed season. Demand spikes from mid-June through mid-September.
Lead Wilderness Ranger Andrew Larson’s reports on conditions in the backcountry, especially at Conundrum and the Four Pass Loop, raised the concerns of Schroyer and other officials in the White River National Forest. He has details on the amount of garbage that rangers haul out of areas where visitors are supposed to pack out their trash, the amount of human waste buried and visitor numbers.
It’s a far cry from the numbers of visitors when wilderness was created in 1964.
“I don’t think this is what any of us expected to see,” Schroyer said.
Her main concerns are soil and water degradation from camps within 100 feet of streams and lakes, and effects on wildlife habitat from high-intensity human use.
Schroyer said she feels an “obligation” to change management practices. She isn’t sure what changes should take place. The Forest Service will solicit public opinion to see what ideas emerge. Schroyer said she doesn’t want to start the effort with any predisposed outcome, but a permit system with limited access to the most popular destinations must be vetted.
“I don’t know if it’s a limited-use system yet, but that needs to be in the discussion,” she said.
A different approach to high-use areas probably wouldn’t require a change in the Forest Service’s resource-management plan, she said. Instead, the agency would employ new techniques to achieve management objectives.
“We have standards we’re not meeting. We need to change that,” Schroyer said.
She said some of the issues facing the hotspots are “unsettling.”
“Where will we be in 50 years if we don’t make some management changes?” she asked.