Helping hand bails out Aspen’s wilderness rangers
A program that provides rangers funds to perform everything from clearing fallen trees off trails to assisting backcountry hikers in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness has been taken off life support in recent years by Aspen Skiing Co. workers.
Skico employees’ Environment Foundation has awarded grants to the White River National Forest specifically for the wilderness ranger internship program or wilderness trails crews in four of the past five years. The foundation has given $49,594 for those programs, including $10,000 this spring.
Kay Hopkins, recreation program manager for wilderness and trails in the Forest Supervisor’s Office, said the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District historically hired several seasonal wilderness rangers to patrol the thousands of acres in the Collegiate Peaks, Hunter-Fryingpan, Holy Cross and Raggeds wilderness areas as well as the high-traffic Maroon Bells-Snowmass.
But national firefighting efforts have siphoned off an increasing part of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget in recent years. The forest will likely be reduced to one or two paid staff wilderness rangers for the summer, Hopkins said. It will be able to hire four interns thanks to the foundation’s grant.
Interns are “lifesavers”
The federal agency has relied on interns, usually college students on summer break, for the last several years. They work for 12 weeks in the heart of summer.
“They’ve been lifesavers for us,” Hopkins said. “They’re our boots on the ground.”
Environment Foundation Executive Director Matthew Hamilton said the group’s board of directors, composed of Skico employees, has regularly awarded grants to the White River National Forest “as the challenges have become more extreme.” The forest’s budget is shrinking while the number of visitors keeps climbing.
Buses to the Maroon Lake parking lot, the gateway to the wilderness, hauled a record number of passengers last summer. Motorized and mechanized uses are prohibited in the wilderness.
Witnessing the challenges
Skico workers hike the backcountry trails and have witnessed the trouble the Forest Service faces in meeting demands.
“Our board sees this grant as taking care of our land,” Hamilton said, noting that “our land” meant public lands.
In addition to funds for the wilderness ranger interns and trails crews, the Environment Foundation has awarded grants to other conservation efforts headed by the Forest Service or conservation partners. All told, the foundation has awarded 20 grants totaling $108,000 to White River National Forest projects since spring 1998, according to its records.
Hopkins said the White River staff knows full well how important those grants are. The proof is in the wilderness ranger program.
“We could not do it without them,” she said.
Maroon Bells-Snowmass — the Aspen area’s most popular wilderness — has benefited.
A report prepared by the White River National Forest showed that the seasonal and intern rangers patrolled 1,156 miles over 251 patrol days and 75 patrol nights last summer, maintained 100 miles of trails, logged 325 downed trees, dismantled 258 illegal fire rings and performed 351 “sanitation burials” — code for cleaning up after people who didn’t properly dispose of their waste.
A lot of the attention of the wilderness rangers goes to Conundrum Hot Springs, where numbers of visitors have soared. Last summer the rangers packed out 231 pounds of garbage from Conundrum and 515 pounds overall.
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Both President Donald Trump and the Republican Party stand to reap quite a windfall after Vice President Mike Pence visits Aspen on Monday for a fundraiser.