Plan unveiled to manage overnight use in Aspen’s Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness
WILD, WILD WEST
Wilderness rangers in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District had a busy summer in 2016 patrolling the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Here is a summary of some of their activities.
•9,611 visitors contacted
•140 illegal fire rings naturalized near Conundrum Hot Springs; 327 illegal fire rings naturalized overall
•13 wildlife incident reports documented and referred to district biologist
•438 pounds of trashed packed out, 163 from Conundrum alone
•273 incidences of unburied human waste
•176 citations for dogs off leash
•215 citations for no bear canister despite an estimated 83 percent compliance rate among overnight visitors
•46 illegal campsites
•38 citations for no permit picked up at trailhead
The White River National Forest released a proposal Thursday to manage the number of overnight visitors in the popular Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness southwest of Aspen.
U.S. Forest Service officials said a surge in overnight use is forcing them to take action to preserve natural conditions and maintain a quality experience in wilderness, where mechanized and motorized uses are prohibited.
Overnight use on the top 10 trails in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness has increased 115 percent since 2007, according to data tracked by the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. Conundrum Hot Springs, the Four Pass Loop and Crater Lake have been hit particularly hard.
“Every year visitation is record setting and every year we are seeing more resource damage and in general a lack of ethical behavior from visitors,” said Kay Hopkins, recreation planner for the White River National Forest.
The soaring use has resulted in changes to the landscape, such as tree cutting, fire scars, denuded campsites, trash and improperly buried human waste. Improper storage of food and trash has also habituated wildlife to human presence. The White River started requiring backpackers to use bear-proof containers to store food and trash because bears were getting aggressive after campers left out food.
Establish camping zones
The Overnight Visitor Use Management Plan would establish different camping zones in the 181,535-acre wilderness area, which includes the iconic Maroon Bells and popular destinations such as Capitol Peak, Pyramid Peak and Snowmass Lake. The Forest Service will set standards for how many campers each zone can absorb and monitor their use, using a measurement officially called Groups At One Time or GAOT.
If the threshold is exceeded in a specific zone, certain management actions would be triggered, according to a list of Frequently Asked Questions developed by the White River staff. A permit system with limits on total users will be among the management tools that will be examined.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said Thursday the beauty of the proposed management plan is it is adaptive. Instead of treating the entire wilderness area the same, the Forest Service can adapt its plan to conditions found in individual the zones.
“We want to be a little more flexible,” he said. “It’s really about protecting or maintaining a wilderness experience — or something close.”
Visitor use in areas outside of wilderness, such as Maroon Lake, wouldn’t be limited.
The White River National Forest is exploring the management plan along with the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest. A portion of the wilderness is the adjacent forest.
The draft plan can be found at http://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=49388. There is a link on how to submit a comment.
The Forest Service stressed Thursday that if a fee and overnight permit system emerges as one of the management tools, a second public review process and comment opportunity will be held.
Front Rangers in the forest
White River officials have held a handful of public meetings over the last 18 months to gauge if Roaring Fork Valley residents would support greater management of wilderness use. They feel confident about local support, Fitzwilliams said, but there could be “push back” from forest visitor living outside of the mountains.
Data collected by the agency shows that 54 percent of overnight visits are from Colorado Front Range residents and another 29 percent from people living other places in the U.S.
Visitors from urban areas might not feel the wilderness areas are crowded or that their experience degraded by high use, Fitzwilliams noted. For example, local residents might be horrified by a late September hike to Crater Lake while visitors might not be turned off the by the crowds.
“It’s such a great experience for people even if it’s with a lot of other people,” he said.
The Forest Service will hold a public open house on the plan on Nov. 15 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Basalt Regional Library. The agency will also accept public comments on the plan from any interested party.
Wilderness Workshop, the valley’s oldest, homegrown environmental organization, commended the Forest Service for its direction. In a statement released Thursday, Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker said limiting use of popular recreation areas has resulted time and again in protection of natural resources and a higher quality user experience.
“We anticipate the same will hold true as the White River National Forest incrementally institutes the proposed Visitor Use Management Plan for high use areas of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness,” Shoemaker said in a statement.
“We support the direction the agency is headed and stand by to assist in any way possible,” he concluded.
Status quo ‘not an option’
Fitzwilliams said it is important for the White River National Forest staff to properly communicate to the public what the problem is and how it is trying to ease it.
Once the public hears about and sees how the wilderness is being loved to death, he believes people will understand “we have to do something.”
The forest has to be managed for future generations, Fitzwilliams said, so changes are necessary.
“The status quo is not an option,” he said.
An inventory completed in 2010 documented 728 campsites throughout the wilderness impacted an area equivalent to 35 football fields. That’s just one example of how conditions violate the forest management plan for wilderness areas, according to information released Thursday by the White River.
While other public land management agencies such as the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management have implemented permit systems for high use areas, the Forest Service has used it sparingly. The White River National Forest receives more recreation visits than any other national forest in the country. Even excluding skier visits still makes it one of the busiest. With Colorado’s Front Range growing at 12,000 people per month, Fitzwilliams said, it is clear forest visits will continue to grow.
“I don’t think there’s a button that you hit that says, “Don’t come,’” Fitzwilliams said.
A public scoping process will be held from the next 30 days, allowing the public to weigh in on the draft plan. An Environmental Assessment will be released in spring 2017 with a proposed course of action. The public will have another opportunity to comment.
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