Aspen forest rangers collecting opinions on wilderness issues | AspenTimes.com

Aspen forest rangers collecting opinions on wilderness issues

Hikers visit Maroon Lake last summer. Visits to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness are soaring. The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District is reaching out to different forest users to gauge the problems and target solutions.

The top official in the U.S. Forest Service's Aspen-Sopris Ranger District is going on the road to discuss overcrowding problems at hot spots in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and possible management changes.

District Ranger Karen Schroyer said she will meet soon with officials at the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative and other organizations to discuss what the agency has witnessed at places such as the Four Pass Loop and Conundrum Hot Springs. The Forest Service started seeking opinions from Roaring Fork Valley residents in February on whether management changes are needed in the 183,000-acre wilderness area.

The problem is simple, according to rangers: The spectacular wilderness area is getting loved to death in places. The number of overnight visitors vaulted from 7,382 in 2007 to 12,338 in 2013, according to the agency's data. No visitor numbers are available for 2014, but all signs indicate it was a very busy year.

Hikers regularly encounter more than 20 groups on some of the more popular routes. The Forest Service figures 20 groups in average daily use is a threshold to maintain a sense of solitude in wilderness.

Schroyer said the Forest Service will continue what she called "outreach" throughout this year and into 2016. It's possible that the agency could start its review of management changes in 2017, she said. That will be a lengthy process dictated by the National Environmental Policy Act. That requires ample public comment when management changes are contemplated.

Schroyer and other officials with the Forest Service and Pitkin County met with the public Wednesday night to talk specifically about management issues in the Castle Creek Valley. That process is related to but separate from the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District's look at management of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

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In earlier meetings, Schroyer said the Forest Service will contemplate limits on the length of stay in the wilderness and the number of people visiting certain areas at one time.

At Wednesday's meeting, Schroyer told an audience of about 50 people that management of the White River National Forest surrounding Aspen cannot be dictated solely by local residents.

"As much as we love what we have here and want control of it, we can't," Schroyer said.

The Forest Service must give all citizens of the country a chance to comment on management issues on public lands, she said. She's starting the process of going outside the valley by engaging groups in the Front Range.

However, Schroyer said, residents can heavily influence the process, particularly if there is consensus. She noted that Roaring Fork Valley residents influenced changes in the forest's oil-and-gas master plan by getting parts of Thompson Divide southwest of Carbondale removed from future exploration.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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