Forest Service: Conundrum faces bigger woes than cows

Scott CondonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – The cow carcasses littering the Conundrum Hot Springs are nothing compared with the bigger issues facing the beautiful valley, according to the U.S. Forest Service.The carcasses are a temporary problem that won’t alter the character of the wilderness area, said Andrew Larson, lead wilderness ranger for the Aspen-Sopris District. The bigger problem is the immense popularity of the Conundrum Hot Springs and the affects humans are having on the high-elevation environment.”Maintaining natural conditions up there is really difficult,” Larson said.Conundrum has one of the highest use levels of any destination in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Forest Service data shows 830 overnight permits were issued to parties of various sizes hiking in from the Aspen side during 2011. Most of that activity was compressed between mid-June and late September because of snow covering the valley floor.There were 2,172 individuals covered by those permits. When multiday trips were factored in, they stayed at the hot springs area for a total of 5,700 user days, according to Larson.The narrow valley is worse for the wear and tear. The Forest Service has limited camping to 18 designated spots relatively close to the hot springs. The springs are 8.5 miles from the trailhead. The designated spots are within one-quarter mile from the springs. Spill-over camping is farther down the valley.Larson said that on the busiest weekends, there are roughly 120 people camping within a quarter-mile radius of the hot springs. That high concentration is hardly in keeping with the solitude and the untouched environment that is supposed to be the hallmark of designated wilderness areas.”We’re supposed to provide for a primitive experience,” Larson said. “A lot of people come up here for a party experience.”The Forest Service’s standard management practice is to minimize use of signs in wilderness. However, signs announcing bans on dogs and fires, designating campsites and describing etiquette at the hot springs have all been erected to deal with the hordes.The Forest Service has been forced to try to close trails that spread out like a spiderweb in the area. They are trying to require people to pack out human waste as well as the usual garbage. The requirement came after a survey in summer 2006 or 2007 showed 75 percent of the designated campsites had some visible sign of human waste, Larson said.The Forest Service will not install a pit toilet because it is counter to wilderness management, and it would be next to impossible to pump out.Dogs are banned within 2.25 miles from the hot springs. Fires are prohibited within a quarter mile.The area lower in the valley, where camping is allowed outside of designated spots and fires are allowed, is a “sacrifice zone,” Larson said.The dog ban sometimes goes ignored. The hot springs attracts a regional, if not national, crowd. Some users drive up from Denver with their pets only to find that dogs aren’t allowed, Larson said. He and other rangers wrote six tickets for people bringing dogs into the dog-free zone last summer. Rangers turned back another 20 dog owners while they were on the trail.If the site was within a National Park, the Park Service would limit use, Larson said. The Forest Service tends not to do that, but there are no more management tools available at Conundrum. “We’ve done everything we can,” he said.The agency cannot afford to station rangers at the springs 24/7 throughout the warm-weather months because of a lack of funds. The agency will send rangers and interns when feasible, and it will try to educate users on the regulations affecting the hot springs and Conundrum Valley.The agency isn’t doing itself any favors on its website. Finding information on the White River National Forest website on Conundrum Valley is a challenge: Go to and hit the “area management” link for general regulations at Conundrum Hot Springs.Larson said he is uncertain whether the presence of dead cows in the area will affect visitation this year. So far, rangers have found the carcasses of 11 cows that froze in the area last fall. A rancher with a grazing right on the Crested Butte site of the high peaks lost 29 cows last fall. It is unknown whether the other 18 are in Conundrum.Forest Service workers have dragged the carcasses out of the designated campsites and into the surrounding woods so that problems don’t arise with predators when people start visiting the hot springs this spring. Larson expects to find additional carcasses as the snow melts.So far, there is no evidence that the dead cows have contaminated the hot springs, Larson


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