50 years after Wilderness Act, Aspen’s Maroon Bells-Snowmass faces challenges

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Backpackers depart into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Thursday. Wilderness rangers say the number of visitors to certain hotspots is soaring.
Christina Capasso/Special to The Aspen Times |

if you go

What: Maroon Bells Birthday Bash

When: Saturday, 3 to 9 p.m.

Where: Aspen Highlands base

Tickets: $10 advance, $15 at door

Forest rangers and environmentalists from the Aspen area will get together Saturday to celebrate the creation of wilderness lands 50 years ago, but it’s not going to be all fun and games.

They also will share concerns about the loss of wilderness characteristics wrought by industrial tourism, particularly in the popular Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

“It’s a good time to look back and celebrate,” said Dave Reed, communications director for Wilderness Workshop, the oldest homegrown environmental group in the Roaring Fork Valley. It’s also a time to look forward to determine “what will the next 50 years bring,” he said.

The Wilderness Act was passed in 1964 with the goal of keeping designated lands natural, undeveloped, untrammeled and ripe with solitude for visitors. The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness was included in the original inventory for good reason — it has six peaks higher than 14,000 feet, nine passes higher than 12,000 feet, 100 miles of trails and scenery that draws people from around the world.

But the characteristics that make it so special are also subjecting it to great pressure. Certain destinations are so popular, they are losing their wilderness appeal, said Andrew Larson, lead wilderness ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.

Hotspots overwhelmed with users

Wilderness rangers counted 50 people at the Conundrum Hot Springs on July 25. As the rangers hiked out of the valley, they encountered 160 backpackers heading to the popular springs. That doesn’t include backpackers hiking in from the Crested Butte site.

Typically, crowds topped 200 only on Saturday nights around the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends, Larson said.

There were 34 vehicles crammed into the parking lot at the trailhead last weekend. Another 30 vehicles lined Castle Creek Road, the closest alternative parking.

“The trailhead parking is indicative of what’s going on in the backcountry,” Larson said.

Rangers hauled out 26 pounds of trash Saturday, Larson said. Conundrum visitors are urged at the trailhead to take free plastic bags to pack out human waste. Nevertheless, inadequate burial of human waste in campsites used by people visiting the springs is a problem, Larson said. A 2007 survey showed that 71 percent of Conundrum campsites have exposed human waste.

The Conundrum Hot Springs aren’t the only hotspot in the wilderness area. Rangers counted 502 people hiking between West Maroon Pass and Maroon Lake on Sunday. That’s a popular hiking route between Aspen and Crested Butte with a typically impressive display of wildflowers.

The Crater Lake area has become so busy with campers and hikers that a wilderness ranger stays there Fridays and Saturdays. Contacts with 300 people per day are the norm. Among random days when use was monitored, the highest number of hikers on the Crater Lake Trail was 954 on Sept. 22, 2012.

Snowmass Lake and Thomas Lake are inundated with campers. Trails to Cathedral and American lakes are crammed with hikers.

Challenges can’t be denied

Overnight visits to all locations in Maroon Bells-Snowmass soared to about 49,000 in 2013 from about 30,000 the year before, according to the White River National Forest Supervisor’s Office. Those visits are crammed into a short period, roughly from mid-June through September.

The Forest Service doesn’t want to turn the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act into a bummer, but its focus at the party Saturday at the base of Aspen Highlands will be on the stewardship challenges in Maroon Bells-Snowmass.

The agency says 728 campsites have been surveyed in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Three of every five campsites are within 100 feet of trails, stream or rivers — compacting the soil and raising the risk of ecosystem degradation.

The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District has ratcheted up regulations in the Conundrum Valley over the years to try to mitigate the environmental impacts of intense summer use. Campfires are prohibited in areas closest to the hot springs in an effort to prevent people from stripping live trees. Dogs are now prohibited in the closest camps.

“We’ve basically tried every trick in the bag,” Larson said. Wilderness rangers are asked every day they are up there, “Why are you guys not limiting use?” he said.

Although the White River National Forest Management Plan was updated in 2002, sub-area plans for the wilderness areas in the forest haven’t been updated since 1988. If limits to “magnet areas” were ever considered, it would be as part of those updates.

No “crush” in other areas

Fortunately, Aspen is surrounded by ample wilderness. There are 316,000 acres in five wilderness areas in the Roaring Fork River watershed, Larson said.

The Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness was created in 1978 and expanded in 1993. It adds lands between Independence Pass and the south side of the Fryingpan Valley.

The Holy Cross Wilderness, on the north side of the Fryingpan Valley, was added in 1980.

The Collegiate Peaks, also added in 1980, are south of Independence Pass.

The Raggeds Wilderness, south of Marble, includes some lands in the Roaring Fork watershed. It was added in 1980 and expanded in 1993.

“We have five wilderness areas, and we only have one where we have the crush,” Larson said.

There might not be another setting as spectacular as the Maroon Lake-Maroon Bells corridor, Larson conceded, but the other wilderness areas also offer spectacular sights — and greater opportunities for solitude. The Lost Man Trail in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness is one of the few attractions in the other wilderness areas that consistently draws Maroon Bells-Snowmass-type numbers, Larson said.

Some campsites “disappearing”

David Richie, wilderness monitoring coordinator for Wilderness Workshop, collects data on everything from air quality and acid rain to weed proliferation and campsite use in the wilderness areas. The Wilderness Monitoring Project has been a joint program for Wilderness Workshop and the Forest Service since 2006.

Richie collects an impressive array of useful information to help assess the conditions of the backcountry areas, including recreation impacts. One interesting finding is that the overall number of old campsites and hunters’ camps is dropping. While high-use areas — “the usual suspects” — are experiencing increased use, many other campsites are “disappearing,” he said. Ground research and use of Google Earth allows him to track the evolution of the campsites.

He isn’t certain why some camps have fallen out of favor. Perhaps there is more of a desire among people to use wilderness as a workout location for three or more hours of intense use and adventure, but then visitors want to return to a luxury hotel in Aspen rather than rough it overnight, he said.

“It’s an interesting issue to speculate on,” Richie said.

Larson said his contact with forest visitors indicates less interest in solitude. People read about the Conundrum Hot Springs or Four Pass Loop — a 26-mile route over Buckskin, Trail Rider, Frigid Air and West Maroon passes — and put them on their bucket lists, he said. They want the adventure.

Larson also said that many of the visitors he encounters at those places tend to be novices at backpacking. They are unfamiliar with other opportunities in the backcountry, and they aren’t as aware of where they should locate camps and how to properly dispose of human waste, he said.

In many areas of the country, the Forest Service is concerned with how to keep wilderness areas relevant in a fast-paced world, Larson noted. But for the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, the concern is more about preserving the wilderness feel.