Permit system eyed for Conundrum Hot Springs for 2017 | AspenTimes.com

Permit system eyed for Conundrum Hot Springs for 2017

Winter is the time to avoid the crowds at Conundrum Hot Springs, one of the most popular destinations in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. The Forest Service will consider capacity limits and a permit system for the hot springs.

The U.S. Forest Service might try to limit the number of backpackers camping around Conundrum Hot Springs as soon as summer 2017, according to Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer.

The U.S. Forest Service staff is methodically working through some preliminary steps to implement a visitor-use management system at some hotspots in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Some of the more popular wilderness destinations are getting loved to death and are suffering from resource damage, according to Forest Service officials.

Conundrum Hot Springs and the Four Pass Loop are two areas that rangers specifically feel need added protection.

Schroyer and other rangers have previously held informal public meetings to gauge public sentiment for a permit system. At one such meeting in Carbondale last year, the audience was overwhelmingly in support of permits for the most popular destinations.

Schroyer said the plan is to propose a visitor-use management system in spring 2016 and trigger the agency's formal environmental review process. That would include reaching out to the public for comments and addressing issues that get raised.

The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District is doing work to prepare for the formal process. Lead Wilderness Ranger Andrew Larson is researching permit systems on public lands around the country, Schroyer said. The district also will look at the carrying capacity for areas such as the Conundrum Hot Springs, which requires a hike of about 8 miles from the trailhead southwest of Aspen.

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It probably won't be possible to implement a wide-ranging visitor management system at the start, Schroyer said. "We probably have to phase it in — Conundrum first," she said.

Wilderness rangers created a video in 2014 called, "Wilderness in Peril" that showed how much trash they hauled out and how much human waste they were forced to bury at backcountry camps because people didn't do it right or try at all.

In 2013, wilderness rangers hauled out 586 pounds of garbage out of Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, including 164 pounds from Conundrum Hot Springs. They buried 175 piles of human waste. They found evidence of 307 illegal fires — including those above tree line and too close to water sources. They found 107 illegal campsites. They encountered 244 dogs off leash.

Ideally, a permit system would include a fee, Schroyer said, but implementing a fee right now is difficult because it requires certain steps, including vetting by a citizen oversight board called the Colorado Recreation Resource Advisory Committee. The problem is the Rocky Mountain Region doesn't currently have that board in place, according to Schroyer. It was disbanded after lack of use.

The Forest Service is researching if it can have the Bureau of Land Management advisory committee vet its issues as well.

The White River National Forest is prepared to move forward with limits on users at Conundrum, even without a fee, Schroyer said. However, the process has "lots of moving parts" so the permit system and capacity limits would only be set in summer 2017 in a best-case scenario, she said.

scondon@aspentimes.com