An avid visitor to the Conundrum Hot Springs in the wilderness southwest of Aspen is aiming to convince the U.S. Forest Service to put the roof back on an old cabin located close to the pools.
Evan Ravitz, of Boulder, contends that the cabin is needed for safety from “vicious hailstorms” and late-spring snowstorms that strike the high mountain valley. The hot springs are the highest in the U.S. at 11,250 feet.
Forest Service officials consider the cabin “an attractive nuisance” that is out of balance with wilderness values. The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness management plan dictates that the agency will allow the vast majority of cabins and “fall into ruin at the hands of the elements.”
Former Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Scott Snelson decided in August 2012 to have a crew remove the tin roof from the cabin.
Ravitz said he is exploring whether the Forest Service followed the National Environmental Policy Act when it took the action. He said there was no public process before the action was taken in the summer of 2012. He is exploring whether the public was allowed to weigh in on the cabin issue when the wilderness management plan was created in 1988.
If it appears National Environmental Policy Act was violated, “then we’ll talk to lawyers,” Ravitz said.
In a July 2012 letter to Forest Service officials in Aspen, Ravitz wrote that he had visited the Conundrum Hot Springs “some 600 days over 34 years” and had soaked for more than 4,000 hours.
He created a group called “Friends of Conundrum Hot Springs” in the early 2000s after an official with the White River National Forest told him there was allegedly a plan to close half the 16 established campsites around the hot springs and require a permit to use the remainder. The members worked to improve the environment around the hot springs. He said their pressure got the Forest Service to reroute a trail around delicate terrain near the springs. The organization also urges spring users to pack out all garbage and clothing, respect the ban on fires and use “poop bags” provided at the trailhead. The organization has more than 1,000 members, including some retired Forest Service employees, according to Ravitz.
Ravitz said he opposes a possible permit system as a “draconian measure” and wants to prevent the Forest Service from going that direction.
The preservation of the cabin is important for at least three reasons, Ravitz contends: safety, citizens of the U.S. paid to have it constructed, and because it “wasn’t harming anyone.”
“It doesn’t have much character, but it saves lives,” Ravitz said of the cabin. The structure didn’t have windows or doors for years, but it provided shelter in a pinch during nasty weather.
It gained notoriety last year with the discovery of six cows that entered and then froze to death. The cows were among 29 that wandered off a grazing allotment on the Crested Butte side of the divide. It’s unknown why they wandered into the Conundrum Valley, terrain they didn’t historically visit.
The Forest Service’s research indicates the structure was built in the 1910s and once served as a ranger station at the popular hot springs. The hot springs and cabin are about 8.5 miles from the trailhead southwest of Aspen. The cabin is about 1,000 feet downstream from the hot springs.
The cabin was evaluated in the 1980s for historical significance but didn’t quality for the National Register, according to the Forest Service. It was evaluated again last year before the Forest Service removed the roof.
David Francomb, the acting Aspen-Sopris District Ranger, said his predecessor used a Forest Service document called a Minimum Requirements Decision Guide when he reached the decision to remove the roof. That guide is used when a National Environmental Policy Act analysis isn’t warranted, according to a Forest Service website. Snelson said at the time he felt the 1988 wilderness management plan authorized the action.
The Forest Service has been concerned about the wear and tear on the Conundrum area for decades. Data collected in 2011 show there were 830 permits issues for overnight visits. They covered 2,172 individuals. When multiday trips are factored in, there were 5,700 user days that year. Most of them are compressed between mid-June and late September because of weather.
The Forest Service has restricted dogs in the upper Conundrum Valley, designated camping sites, banned fires at the sites nearest the hot springs and removed the roof of the cabin.
“It just didn’t fit with the characteristics of wilderness,” Francomb said. “Scott (Snelson) made the decision to take the roof off and let it go to ruin.”