Forest Service official: Visitors getting too wild for Aspen-area wilderness
One hundred seventy-five piles of human waste, 244 dogs off leash, 107 illegal campsites, 307 illegal fires. Those are some of the outdoor transgressions the U.S. Forest Service dealt with in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in 2014.
The numbers reflect a growing number of visitors to the vastly popular wilderness area on the outskirts of Aspen. It turned 50 last year with the golden anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which passed in 1964.
The swelling use of the pristine attraction — which includes the Conundrum Hot Springs, Crater Lake, the Maroon Bells and a number of hiking trails — has prompted Forest Service officials to eye ways to make visitors more aware of proper outdoors protocol, whether it’s by collecting their own feces, cleaning up their trash or leashing their animals. The Forest Service also is pondering the creation of a permit system that would limit visits, an idea that is partly based on the contention that the outdoor experience’s serenity and solitude have been compromised by the high volumes of visitor traffic.
“We are open to a limited-use permit,” Karen Schroyer, who heads the Forest Service’s Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, told Pitkin County commissioners at a work session Tuesday. “But I’m not saying that’s where we’re going.”
Schroyer made a plea for greater public awareness about the impacts that have created more work for the Forest Service and more damage to the environment. She was seeking better ways to manage the area.
Some commissioners noted that the lack of ethics outdoors could chiefly be due to ignorance by guests, who accounted for an estimated 15,000 overnight visits in 2014 and 12,338 in 2013.
“We’re dropping off literally bus loads of people at these portals, and the people are coming from urban areas,” Commissioner George Newman said. “For them, it’s spectacular, but they’re bringing their cultures and values into a wilderness setting and they don’t understand that. How do we reach them?
“How do we get out the message that perhaps you want to think about other places?”
Schroyer said that’s not an easy task when it comes to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, which has been even more popularized by national outdoor publications that often tout its unique traits in top-10 lists and gushing articles. Social media also is driving visits, Schroyer said.
“We need to acknowledge that social media plays a bigger and bigger role in drawing people here,” she said. She added that the Forest Service’s interfacing on social media could reduce the overall impact.
Parking also is spawned a few headaches, with some motorists parking on roadsides and private property. Some of that problem would be alleviated when cellphone service is expanded to those areas, meaning there could be more drop-offs and pick-ups with expanded communications, Commissioner Rachel Richards said.
Richards suggested an honor code of sorts — “making people sign on to understand the rules” — in which users initial forms that explain proper protocol and the laws of the land.
“I think for a lot of people in the city, this is as close as they’ll ever get to true wilderness,” she said.
Commissioner Steve Child said he doesn’t visit the popular hot spots like the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
“A place that’s overused, I don’t go there,” he said. “I can look at the front-page of The Aspen Times to see the Bells. … A person doesn’t have to go there to appreciate the value of wilderness.”
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Mountain Rescue Aspen is expanding its education efforts to try to keep people safe in the backcountry during winters and summers. It will host a workshop on Dec. 8 titled, “How to Plan a Backcountry Tour.”