Next few months will make or break plans for reservation, fee in Maroon Bells wilderness

Forest Service looks to ease onslaught of visitors on Four Pass Loop, other hot spots

A U.S. Forest Service plan to implement a pay-to-play system for backpackers in popular areas of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness this summer must first pass a few litmus tests this spring.

The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District unveiled a plan in July to require reservations and a permit fee of $12 per person per night for the Four Pass Loop, the Capitol Lake area and Geneva Lake starting in summer 2022. The plan is to also start charging a $12 fee to stay overnight near the Conundrum Hot Springs, where a reservation system is already in place.

Forest Service officials said the reservation-and-permit system is needed to reduce crowding and degradation to the special environment.

People enjoy the Maroon Bells scenic area in Aspen during a rainstorm on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times file photo

The agency collected public comments on the proposal late last year and the staff is sorting through 1,635 entries, including about 800 form letters. The assessment of the feedback will be used to help craft a proposal that will be presented to the Regional Fee Board, comprised of Forest Service officials from the Rocky Mountain Region, according to Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Kevin Warner. The board will advise the Forest Service national office to approve the proposal or suggest the proposal requires more work, Warner said.

If the board recommends approval, the Washington office can concur or require additional work.

If the proposal earns recommendation for approval by the regional board and the national office, it gets forwarded to the regional forester or deputy forester for final fee approval, Warner said.

The proposal could be approved as proposed, altered or rejected.

“We don’t know if it will move forward or not,” Warner said. “We won’t know for sure until (the reviews are completed).”

The earliest a reservation and permit system could be in place is April and more likely in May, Warner said.

While it is the dead of winter, some backpackers are starting to make plans for hiking the immensely popular Four Pass Loop, and questions are appearing on a Facebook group page about the status of the reservations and permits. It’s also certain some people are going to make plans without any clue the system might be implemented.

Warner said the Forest Service faces somewhat of a dilemma in balancing thorough review of the comments it received while still trying to get a system in place for the summer.

If the proposal advances, backpackers will be scrambling once reservations are available online.

“Whether they get released in February or May you’re going to see a dash for reservations,” Warner said.

A couple cozies up in view of the Maroon Bells at Crater Lake near Aspen on a cool morning on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

A majority of the comments received by the Forest Service supported a quota system and reservations but opposed a fee, according to an analysis by a group called the Western Slope No Fee Coalition and verified through a spot check by The Aspen Times.

Warner said that sentiment fails to recognize the realities of funding for the Forest Service. If the agency implements the reservation and permit system, it must raise the funds to operate and enforce it.

“That’s where the struggle is,” Warner said. “The Congressional appropriations we receive don’t cover it at this time.”

Charging the fee is one tool at the agency’s disposal to implement a resource protection plan.

In an interview earlier this winter, Western Slope No Fee Coalition president Kitty Benzar was critical of the Forest Service’s review process for proposals such as the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Overnight Visitor Management Plan.

The Forest Service used to have a citizens’ panel called the Recreation Resource Advisory Committee that reviewed proposed fees and changes at recreational sites. That panel was disbanded years ago, Benzar said. The panel made the Forest Service accountable while the internal review is, in her view, a rubber stamp.

While Warner acknowledged the process is strictly an internal review, he said the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District must make a convincing case for the proposal for the review at the regional and national level.

If the reservation and fee system is implemented, it will improve the experience for backpackers at the hot spots but also dash a lot of plans for visiting the areas overnight. For example, the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District’s preliminary plan proposed 15 nightly permits at Snowmass Lake, where it is currently a free-for-all along the Four Pass Loop.

The yellowing leaves are reflected in Maroon Lake on a stormy day in Aspen on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. Maroon Bells will be open for reservations to drive and park through Oct. 24 this year and shuttles will be available through Oct. 23. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)



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