Forest ranger leaves Aspen backcountry better than she found it
Campers and backpackers are urged to leave the sites where they stay on public lands in better shape than when they found them.
Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer took that concept and ratcheted it up several notches.
When Schroyer transfers out of her post July 25, it will be with a legacy of leaving the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in better shape than she found it five and a half years ago.
Schroyer headed a team that implemented an adaptive management system to protect some of the most outstanding places in the White River National Forest from getting loved to death.
Gone are the free-for-all parties at Conundrum Hot Springs where overflow backpackers plopped down where they wanted. Soon there will be limits on how many backpackers can camp on any given night along the scenic stretches of the Four Pass Loop.
“I think the district as a whole is resilient and that the land is in really good shape,” Schroyer said. “But there are these pockets of impact that we know we have to address, like on the Four Pass Loop.”
When she took the post in 2014, Schroyer said she was “bombarded” with information about how bad conditions were in the backcountry because of people camping in inappropriate places, leaving behind trash and refusing to properly bury human waste. Some of the people visiting the special places in the White River National Forest didn’t want to do their part to care for them.
“At that time it was so disheartening, watching what our wilderness rangers were going through and knowing it was not part of their job description to have to bury people’s poop and carry out their garbage,” Schroyer said. “That was very frustrating.
“But I’ll tell you what, since we got the plan signed and approved and we have a tool now that we can make those management changes with, it’s a lot more positive future. I think we all feel that way.”
In layperson’s language, the 2017 management plan sets thresholds on use and triggers in ecological conditions that allow the Forest Service to make changes without going through additional extensive reviews. Conundrum Creek Valley was on the extreme end of those changes. A permit system was implemented in 2018 that allows camping only in designated, dispersed sites reserved in advance.
A similar system is likely to be implemented in 2021 on the Four Pass Loop, which includes such popular destinations as Snowmass Lake and West Maroon Pass.
“On the Four Pass Loop, we’re not going to set up designated, dispersed sites,” Schroyer said. “We’re just going to create zones where a certain number of people can camp each night.”
Schroyer stressed that Mother Nature deserves most of the credit for the high quality of health of the forest in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.
“Look at Basalt Mountain after a year (since the Lake Christine Fire) and the new growth there,” she said.
The Forest Service gets an assist for its management policies, she said.
Schroyer came to the Aspen-Sopris District after working for the Forest Service in Southern Utah. She is leaving to become deputy forest supervisor in the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon.
She said it was a “great honor” to work in the Roaring Fork Valley and a tough decision to move on.
“It’s been an emotional roller coaster thinking about leaving here the last six weeks,” she said.
The Roaring Fork Valley’s relationship with federal land management agencies is extraordinarily good — unlike any she’s experienced or heard of, she said. She called the Roaring Fork Valley an “incredible bubble” to work in.
“The amount of support we get, both financial and moral, from the public is incredible. During the furlough, the amount of support we got from this valley didn’t happen across the country.”
Sometimes, she said, the Forest Service was unable to take advantage of the support.
“What makes that challenging here is everybody has great ideas and money and resources to support their ideas, but we don’t always have the resources to support those ideas and sometimes those ideas aren’t in line with what our priorities are, so it’s tough,” Schroyer said. “We want to be the good partner and we can’t always be the good partner.”
Schroyer earned praise from people outside the agency who regularly worked with her. Chris Lane, executive director of Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, said Schroyer brought many qualities that were critical to the success of the Forest Service in this region.
“She brought a more definitive and intentional collaborative approach with all parties pertinent to our forests,” Lane said via email. “Through her calm temperament, non-adversarial tone and leadership, she and her staff elevated the fine arts of collaboration, consensus building and the rarely executed task of listening to people was part of everything she did.”
Schroyer and Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams helped ACES and its partners implement a forest health and restoration effort in Hunter Creek Valley, affectionately known as Aspen’s backyard, he noted.
“What I appreciate most about Karen was that she truly cared in her heart, as well as through her professional actions, about the ecology, health and natural systems of our forests relative to extraction and other uses,” Lane said. “This shows her ability to be more visionary and look at the long-term implications of decisions with our forests over short term financial gains for special interests.
“I, for one, will miss Karen.”
Schroyer’s five and a half years at the helm were anything but dull. The Lake Christine Fire dominated her time last summer. This spring and summer the district is dealing with epic avalanche debris. Bear-human interactions spiked during her first summer and led to the closure of backpacking camping sites around Crater Lake. The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District adopted a requirement that backpackers carry bear canisters for food and waste everywhere in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
The agency also installed bear lockers at all its campgrounds. It also undertook “a ton” of education and outreach to encourage responsible human behavior.
“It’s been a concerted effort and I feel like people are more responsibly recreating when it comes to food and bears,” she said.
A growing population of moose could present the next challenge. Moose are regularly spotted in the popular Maroon Bells Scenic Area, where the Forest Service allows dogs on leash. Moose are “incredibly annoyed by dogs,” Schroyer noted.
“Dogs have to be on leash but that doesn’t stop people from getting closer than they should to the moose when it’s up there,” she said. “I’m very concerned that one of these days somebody is going to get very critically hurt. You can only educate so much. That’s one of the things that a future district ranger might decide to take on, restricting dogs from that area.”
Schroyer has been with the Forest Service since 1997. During an exit interview at the Forest Service’s Carbondale office Wednesday, she said she had questioned her employment during the “dark days” after the chief, Tony Tooke, stepped down in March 2018 amid an investigation of sexual harassment charges against him. The resignation came on the heels of a PBS “NewsHour” series that revealed widespread sexual misconduct and several reports of rape within the agency.
Schroyer said since then she has witnessed vast improvement in the training Forest Service employees receive and a willingness to discuss issues.
“We’re having open, honest, difficult conversations that we weren’t willing to do in the past,” she said. “In the past we would just brush aside these difficult discussions or if something made us uncomfortable, we would just ignore it and turn our heads the other way, even with some serious, serious offenses, but we’re not doing that anymore and I’m really pleased to see that. We still have a lot of work to do.”
She said she is glad she “stuck with it” and didn’t quit the agency after the 2018 sexual harassment issues.
“I’m really impressed with the employees of this ranger district and how they responded,” Schroyer said. “They just dove in, every last one of them, and wanted to be part of the change. I think we’re a stronger team because of it.”
She said she has been “hopeful” over the past year by what she has seen in the agency.
“I hope that we continue to highlight our problems as an agency, as well as some of the positive things we’re doing, because I think that’s the only way we’re going to improve,” Schroyer said. “I will be honest with you: I feel incredibly fortunate that I have never in my career had any kind of sexual harassment or ever felt any kind of discrimination. I have worked for incredibly supportive supervisors and always felt I had opportunities to develop and move up in this agency. I know co-workers who haven’t had those same opportunities and have suffered from some form of harassment in the past.”
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