Solitude still out there despite forest’s popularity |

Solitude still out there despite forest’s popularity

Although the White River National Forest is now regarded as the most highly visited forest in the country, a survey shows it’s still possible to find solitude in the wilderness.

During an extensive survey of forest users between October 2001 and September 2002, the U.S. Forest Service estimated there are about 291,640 visits annually to wilderness areas, where motorized and mechanized vehicles are prohibited. Those wilderness visits ranged from day hikes to a place like Cathedral Lake to lengthy backpack loops.

Backcountry travelers who participated in the survey expressed extreme satisfaction over their ability to still get away from it all. A report on the survey results showed that 10.5 percent of respondents said “there was hardly anyone there” on their trips.

When asked to rank crowding, 73 percent of respondents ranked their trips as moderately to hardly crowded. Only 1 percent said their trip was extremely crowded, and only 27 percent ranked it moderately to extremely crowded.

The survey found that 60 percent of wilderness visitors were male.

Thirty-three percent of users said the condition of forest trails was good while 56 percent said the condition of trails was very good. Results show 87 percent rated the scenery as very good while the remaining 13 percent said it was good.

The survey found that the average length of stay in wilderness was only eight hours, indicating there were significantly more day trippers than backpackers, according to Pam DeVore, a regional coordinator for the Forest Service surveys in various forests.

She also noted that it was difficult to get a representative sample of wilderness travelers because there was so much ground to cover and so few people conducting the survey. The White River has 751,900 acres of wilderness or about 33 percent of the 2.3 million total acres.

The margin of error for wilderness visits is 15 percent, so the visits could range between 335,000 and 248,000 annually.

Even at the high end of that range, wilderness continues to be the promised land for those seeking solitude.

The forest as a whole received an estimated 9.67 million visits for everything from drive-by viewings at the Maroon Bells to hard-core hiking and climbing on the 11 peaks in the forest over 14,000 feet, according to the U.S. Forest Service report. A “forest visit” is a trip of any length for any reason other than work.

The White River’s visitation numbers make is seem like industrial tourism is running rampant. In reality, most people stay on the beaten paths.

About 71 percent of the 9.67 million visits to the forest occurred at the 11 developed downhill ski areas.

In contrast, only 1.5 percent of the people surveyed said they were going backpacking.

DeVore said the Forest Service has never conducted such a thorough survey on national forest usage before. Prior estimates on forest usage were often best guesses or extrapolated data. She said she didn’t consider prior data on wilderness visits to be credible data.

The White River National Forest was rated the fifth busiest national forest in the country prior to the latest release of survey results. DeVore said the reshuffling in ranking is probably due to the availability of better data.

“Before there was no basis [for the rankings] in statistics or reality or anything else,” she said.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is]

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