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Peaks and valleys

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The White River National Forest will, conservatively, log some 5.6 million recreational visitor days this summer. But on a perfect Saturday night in July, two backpackers found complete solitude at upper Granite Lake in the forest’s Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness.

During one seven-day period in mid-July, an average of 260 people per day entered the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness from the hugely popular Maroon Lake near Aspen, but on a midweek morning, an Aspenite found himself alone on the 14,092-foot summit of Snowmass Mountain.

On a weekend hike from Glenwood Canyon to Hanging Lake, an Aspen resident encountered hundreds of people on the short, steep trail. But an Avon woman encountered just two couples at Pitkin Lake in the Eagles Nest Wilderness near Vail on a cloudless Sunday afternoon.

While experts and regular backcountry visitors agree use of the forest is on the rise, the resulting impacts on both the forest itself and on the experience of being out there, whether it’s on a trail, a river, a bike trail or at a campground, are difficult to quantify.

The White River forest ranked fifth in the nation in 1995 for overall use, but getting an accurate tally of visitors is difficult.

“It’s tricky science, figuring out use numbers,” conceded Tim Lamb, forestry technician with the U.S. Forest Service’s Aspen Ranger District.

In an attempt to accurately track just one component of forest use, the agency enacted a mandatory permit program this summer at trailheads in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass and Holy Cross Wilderness areas. But the program has hit some snags.

For example, though one member of each group entering the wilderness is required to fill out a permit tag, Lamb found just 10 percent of the hikers he encountered on the way to Cathedral Lake had done so. In addition, a number of the trailhead registration sites in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness have been vandalized – some boxes containing the tags have been taken or rendered useless, and hundreds of the tags were simply stolen.

Lamb surmises the acts reflect a fear of future regulations.

“It’s probably someone who doesn’t want to see change or is very suspicious,” he said. “People may see this permit system as the first domino in a series of dominoes leading to fees or restrictions or something.”

Currie Craven, who heads the Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness, supports the permit program as a way to garner hard numbers and thus justify more federal funding for the Forest Service. That would mean more staff to handle the increasing pressure on the forest.

“There’s an abysmal lack of presence and enforcement on the ground,” he said.

But there are locales in the Eagles Nest Wilderness, which straddles the Eagle-Summit county line, that are simply overused and in need of regulation, according to Craven, whose organization leads trail maintenance and education efforts.

Boulder Lake north of Silverthorne is a prime example. Accessible via a short hike into the wilderness, the lake sees heavy impact from day hikers and backpackers. It’s not unusual to find trash, crowds and a host of wilderness use violations, Craven said, including inappropriately placed campsites.

“It has gone to hell in a handbasket,” he said.

The idea of permits or limiting use in certain areas might be unacceptable to some, said Beth Boyst, wilderness manager for the Minturn-based Holy Cross Ranger District, but damage to wilderness areas from overuse is also unacceptable.

“The management question is how do we find the right mix that protects the resource as well as folks’ right to use it?” she said. “We’ll be using those numbers to make management decisions. The do-nothing decision is what we prefer to do – if the resource is protected.”

Heavily used areas of the forest are hardly a secret, Forest Service officials note.

In the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, the high-impact areas include Crater Lake, Capitol Lake, Snowmass Lake and Conundrum Hot Springs.

In the Vail area, no one expects to find solitude on the trail to Booth Creek Falls or on the route up Mount of the Holy Cross, a popular fourteener in the Holy Cross Wilderness.

“I think the public, as well as the Forest Service, knows the places that are getting hammered,” Boyst said.

No one in his right mind expects peace and quiet at a nonwilderness destination like Hanging Lake in the summertime. The vehicles exiting I-70 to the trailhead parking lot sometimes back up onto the interstate.

“There aren’t too many places on the forest where we want an experience like that,” said Rich Doak, recreation planner at the White River’s headquarters in Glenwood Springs. “Hanging Lake is a place we’ve decided to do that.”

“You know if you go to the hot spots, you’re going to see tons of people,” agreed Eagle resident Jenna Baker. “Once you go beyond the short-distance hikes and venture farther back in, the numbers really drop.”

Hiking recently to Mystic Island Lake in the Holy Cross Wilderness, Baker and her fiance encountered perhaps five other people. “It was just gorgeous. It was a great experience,” she said.

Aspenite Aaron Anderson anticipated a crowd at Snowmass Lake, though he headed up on a recent Tuesday afternoon with the intention of climbing Snowmass Mountain the next morning. Crowds were not what he found.

“I expected tons of people, to be honest, but there weren’t that many people there,” he said. “I was, like, the only person on the peak.”

On the other hand, the Forest Service’s Lamb estimates 60 to 70 people were camped at Snowmass Lake over the Fourth of July weekend – hardly a wilderness experience.

Lamb spent an hour burying toilet paper and human feces left uncovered by campers in the woods behind the campsites.

“Now that’s degradation,” he said.

Still, the contrasting experiences at Snowmass Lake illustrate the fluctuations in recreational use of the forest – and the challenges in managing it.

Much depends on when a visitor is in the forest, as well as their particular destination, Doak agreed.

“If you’re hiking in Vail, you’re more likely to encounter a big crowd than you would on the Flattops, let’s say,” he said. “It’s surprising the amount Summit County, even the Vail area, gets in day use coming up from Denver. What Aspen went through 10, 15, even 20 years ago, we’re seeing on the east side of the forest.”

The eastern boundary of the White River National Forest is less than 60 miles from Denver.

Still, Forest Service studies indicate 95 percent of all forest uses take place in road or trail corridors. That leaves plenty of relatively untrammeled space in the 2.3 million-acre forest.

Degradation, Doak said, is concentrated and most severe at certain destination attractions.

“It’s happening,” Lamb agreed, “but I wouldn’t say it’s a gaping wound.”

The Forest Service has a Congressional mandate to protect national forests from harm. That duty extends to citizens, as well, contends Craven of the Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness, even if it means future limits on use in some areas

“To ignore that is to disavow our responsibility – everybody’s responsibility,” he said.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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