Objection filed over plan to limit camping at Aspen’s Conundrum Hot Springs

The Conundrum Hot Springs glisten on a rare uncorwded day earlier this summer. Heavy use has the Forest Service looking into a system to limit overnight use and implement a permit system.
David Krause/The Aspen Times |

A plan to limit overnight use of hotspots in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness has been delayed, at least temporarily, by a Boulder resident who views himself as an expert on the Conundrum Hot Springs southwest of Aspen.

Evan Ravitz filed an objection to an overnight visitor use management plan proposed by the White River National Forest. The objection requires the Forest Service to come up with a legally defensible answer or sit down on at the table in negotiations.

Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop also filed an objection but executive director Sloan Shoemaker said the move is to make sure the organization has a seat at the table in case there are negotiations.

“It’s a friendly intervention to support the Forest Service,” he said. Wilderness Workshop wants the plan implemented as soon as possible to protect areas of the wilderness that are most heavily visited by backpackers during summers.

The Forest Service released a draft decision in June to start limiting overnight use in some portions of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in phases. The first phase would be an overnight permit system for limited camping at Conundrum Hot Springs and Conundrum Creek Valley starting in summer 2018.

The Forest Service is also looking at implementing limits at places along the famous Four Pass Loop and Capitol Creek Valley. The Forest Service popular spots are experiencing human impacts — such as trash, improper burial of human waste, illegal fire rings and camping too close to water sources. It wants to reduce the number of visitors to reduce their impact.

Ravitz is a big fan of the hot springs and has challenged the Forest Service’s management actions there for years. He posted on his website in 2012 that he has spent 600 days and 4,000 hours at the hot springs over 34 years. He also formed the group Friends of Conundrum Hot Springs, which he claims has 500 members.

In an email to The Aspen Times, he said he and the group have “held off” a permit system for 15 years. “I was away in Hawaii in 2014 and 2015 and when I came back in 2016 it was obvious that some kind of permit system was inevitable and needed,” he wrote.

But he doesn’t trust the Forest Service “to hold an honest lottery for the permits, or anything else,” he wrote.

In his objection, Ravitz wrote that the Forest Service is proposing “reasonable” parameters on camping with 20 sites near the hot springs and 16 additional sites lower in the valley. However, those numbers are rendered “meaningless” in the draft decision notice because, in his interpretation, it gives the authorized officer for the Forest Service discretion to adjust the numbers without further public input.

Ravitz said the Forest Service’s authorized officer could be an “absolute dictator” the way the draft decision is worded. He also claimed the Forest Service didn’t notify him of the official comment period on the draft plan. Therefore, he couldn’t notify the 500 members the hot springs group about the process.

“This process is rigged to exclude as much of the public as legally possible, and the plan is unacceptable in a Democratic Republic,” Ravitz wrote. “Start over, produce a summary for the public, and play fair.”

Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams couldn’t be reached Monday for comment on the objection. It was unclear why Ravitz was allowed to make a formal objection to the plan since he hadn’t commented earlier in the process.

The Forest Service went through an extensive and well-publicized process before releasing a draft decision on June 29. Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer and her staff held public meetings to discuss the problem of overuse of certain areas and the resulting damage to the environment. Schroyer also met with the county commissioners to discuss the plan.

The Forest Service held public open houses and press conferences as part of its environmental review of the proposal. The plan was posted to its website and it provided information on how the public could comment.

About 60 organizations or individuals submitted comments on the proposal. A sampling of them showed the vast majority of them were in support of implementing limits on overnight visitors.

The Colorado Mountain Club, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Conservation Colorado, town of Crested Butte and the Pitkin County commissioners were among the groups that support the plan.

Ravitz didn’t submit comments because he said he wasn’t personally notified of the public comment period, as he requested. He tried to rally support among members of Friends of the Conundrum Hot Springs with an email prior to the Aug. 15 objection deadline. One other person objected.

In his email to hot springs advocates, Ravitz said the Forest Service was hiding its intentions in hundreds of documents. The study was meaningless because the Forest Service will just alter the rules at a later date, he claimed.

“We could threaten to petition Trump to slash funding for the entire Forest Service except for firefighting capabilities — and we know how Trump likes slashing and groping!” Ravitz told his group’s members.