Commissioners all for Aspen area backcountry permits | AspenTimes.com

Commissioners all for Aspen area backcountry permits

Visitors take in the Maroon Bells area last fall. On Tuesday, Pitkin County commissioners expressed support for a U.S. Forest Service plan to limit overnight access to popular backcountry areas in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen.

Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday wholeheartedly supported a U.S. Forest Service plan to limit overnight access to popular backcountry areas near Aspen.

"I applaud the Forest Service for finally undertaking this endeavor," Board Chairman George Newman said. "For me personally, I don't think the Forest Service is looking far enough or fast enough at these changes to policies."

The Forest Service is proposing an Overnight Visitors Use Management Plan that will eventually require backcountry visitors to obtain a permit for five currently overused areas. Those areas include Conundrum Hot Springs, Crater Lake, Snowmass Lake, Capitol Lake and West Maroon Valley.

The plan is the result of decades of information gathering in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness by the Forest Service indicating that human impacts are significantly increasing in those five areas, said Karen Schroyer, Aspen-Sopris District ranger.

In fact, use has increased by 285 percent in those popular areas of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness between 2006 and 2015, according to a FAQ sheet prepared by the Forest Service.

For example, rangers packed out 438 pounds of trash from the wilderness area in 2016, discovered 293 instances of unburied human waste and issued 346 violations for illegal campfires, Schroyer said. The number of illegally created campsites in the past 10 years exceeds the length of 35 football fields, she said.

Finally, each year rangers are discovering more evidence of a baffling trend, Schroyer said.

"People are leaving their campsites," Schroyer said. "They're leaving their gear up there."

It isn't clear yet how the permits will be issued or even if people will have to pay for them, she said. That will be decided later.

For now, the Forest Service has issued an environmental assessment identifying the five areas that receive the most impacts. The process is currently open for public comment until April 28. After that, the Forest Service will analyze the data and issue a draft decision that the public can comment on for a 45-day period. A final decision won't come until mid-July at the earliest.

One thing for certain, though, is that Conundrum Hot Springs will be the first area in which permits will be required for overnight camping, Schroyer said. The agency wants to take on that area first and work out any bugs before moving on to the other four areas, she said.

However, implementation of the Conundrum program won't start until spring 2018 at the earliest, Schroyer said.

"This summer you won't see many changes up there," she said.

Newman said he remains concerned that numbers currently envisioned for Conundrum's approximately 20 campsites — which can each have as many as 10 people under current Forest Service rules — still allow too much impact.

"How do we ensure that people enjoy the wilderness experience?" Newman said. "The number has to be smaller when you look at an area like Conundrum."

Schroyer said group size averages 2.3 people, so it's unlikely that 200 people would be camping in those 20 spots at any one time. However, the overnight usage plan allows the Forest Service to adjust its policies if they aren't addressing the problems, she said.

Commissioner Patti Clapper said she would like to see any fees charged for the five areas remain in the Aspen-Pitkin County area to help support the Forest Service locally.

Commissioner Greg Poschman complimented the agency on the new plan, saying that wilderness areas are valuable resources for the county.

"These campsites are more valuable than any hotel room in Aspen," he said.

jauslander@aspentimes.com