Loving the land to death | AspenTimes.com

Loving the land to death

Scott Condon
Growing interest in the backcountry experience is taxing the environmental health of some of this area's wilderness gems. Snowmass Lake is one such area under stress from overuse. (Aspen Times file)

Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” The surging popularity of some of the most stunning wilderness lands surrounding Aspen will require tougher management steps, according to the U. S. Forest Service ranger who is leaving the district. The question is when, according to Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Bill Westbrook, who has specialized in recreation issues during his more than 20-year career with the Forest Service.

Westbrook is transferring to the Zig Zag Ranger District in Oregon next month. He discussed some of the tough issues facing the Aspen- Sopris Ranger District.

Three spectacular sites in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area stick out as hot spots that might need extra attention, according to Forest Service officials and conservation groups. They are the Conundrum Hot Springs, Snow°mass Lake and Crater Lake.

“They’re being loved to death,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, the Roaring Fork Valley’s oldest conservation group, which monitors wilderness lands and issues that affect them.

Westbrook agreed that there is a prob°lem at those three areas: ” I don’t think that’s deniable,” he said.

Those problems include damage to vegetation and, thus, the ecosystem, as well as proper disposal of human waste. Periodic tests by the Forest Service over the last decade have shown high chloroform levels in waters around the Conundrum Hot Springs. That indicates human waste from campsites in the area is affecting the water quality.

The Forest Service toughened management at Crater Lake and the Conundrum Hot Springs several years ago in recognition of the problem. Camping is allowed only in designated areas at those sites, and fires are prohibited.

The 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest already hosts the most recreation visits among national forests in the country. However, the vast majority of those visits are to ski areas that use public lands, rather than people strapping on backpacks and trudging to a serene lake.

Nevertheless, the Forest Service anticipates visits of all types will continue to grow along with the population.

Shoemaker said the prospects for growth make more restrictions necessary. He asserted that the Forest Service might not have any choice.

The 1964 Wilderness Act requires that “wilderness will not be degraded to the degree that it is in some places,” Shoemaker said. That requires the Forest Service to monitor conditions more closely to see if existing management rules are effective. If not ” and if increased education doesn’t help ” then tougher management must be implemented, he said.

That might mean going to a permit system and allowing a set number of people to visit a place like the Conundrum Hot Springs. While nobody likes restrictions on public lands, people have to ask themselves if they want unfettered access or preservation of a quality experience, Shoemaker said.

He maintained that nobody wins if the quality of experience devolves so that only the people “with the thickest of skins” are willing to visit an area.

The good news is the environment hasn’t been degraded in most of the 310,000 acres of wilderness in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, according to a wilderness monitoring program Wilderness Workshop undertakes with cooper°ation from the Forest Service. Water samples are taken from five high- elevation lakes. Air samples are taken from strategic spots. Wilderness campsites have been checked for use starting in 1984.

In some cases, campsites that were in use two decades ago are now overgrown, Shoemaker said. But the use has grown even more intense in some of the more popu°lar places, he said.

Westbrook said the first step for the Forest Service is to assess the level of problems in the hot spots. All districts in the White River National Forest will participate in a survey of forest users in 2007. The agency’s regional office approved a request to ask additional questions of users of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, according to Tim Lamb, a recreation manager in the Aspen- Sopris District. Those questions will try to gauge wilderness visitors’ levels of satisfaction with their experi°ence and opinions on crowding, among other issues.

Lamb, a frequent visitor to Aspen’s wilderness and backcountry, noted that problems are limited to a few areas, and during roughly four months of the year.

“Most of our wilderness visitors are low impact and very conscientious,” he said. Like Westbrook and Shoemaker, he acknowledged the problems arise from the sheer number of people overwhelming a few places. Realistically, Lamb said, the solutions to the problems are limited by the Forest Service’s ability to implement them.

” Limiting use is certainly some°thing that comes up, but there’s really no way we could do that,” Lamb said. The cost of monitoring use is more than the district can afford under current funding levels, he said. The agency is exploring other alternatives.

Scott Condon’s e- mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.


See more