Support expressed for permit system at Aspen area wilderness hot spots
Some people concerned about wilderness surrounding Aspen expressed willingness Wednesday night to support a permit system that would limit access and boost protection for high-use areas, such as Conundrum Hot Springs and the Four Pass Loop.
The U.S. Forest Service hosted an informal session in Carbondale on Wednesday night to discuss problems in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and open a dialog with the public on possible solutions. A second meeting will be held tonight at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies at 7 p.m. It’s free and open to the public. They were part of the Naturalist Nights series presented by Wilderness Workshop and ACES.
“We’re not in the middle of any formal process here. We’re just sensing and outreaching,” said Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer.
But agency officials leave no doubt they are concerned about the integrity of some of the most spectacular wilderness in the country. Wilderness rangers, who patrol the backcountry trails during summer months, made a four-minute video last year, “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, 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.
Land-use management guidelines also indicate Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is losing the solitude that is essential to the wilderness experience. The guideline says no more than 20 groups should be encountered in a day. Rangers found that 35 groups were common.
The short hike from Maroon Lake to Crater Lake is hammered by up to 1,200 hikers per day during the fall.
“If you want to get a sense of solitude, don’t go here,” Schroyer said. “You won’t get it.”
Some visitors also are coming ill-prepared for a journey into the rugged mountains. All-terrain vehicles or helicopters were used 21 times for rescues last summer, Schroyer said.
The use of the 183,000-acre wilderness area didn’t explode overnight. A task force formed by the Forest Service in 2007 looked at wilderness use in Colorado. Maroon Bells-Snowmass was one of three identified as facing the most severe problems.
Numerous recommendations from that committee were implemented or already in place. The wilderness area already has one of the small limits on group sizes at 10. It also enlists volunteers to help with wilderness patrol and education.
Schroyer said those tools aren’t enough to manage the wilderness. The remaining tools are limits on the length of stay and limited permits for access.
A permit would be controversial, Schroyer acknowledged. “That is something that users would have to swallow,” she said. “It’s not going to work without a fee.”
Schroyer and some of her staff members closed out the meeting by posing four questions to the audience of about 50 people and asking them to fill out answers on sticky notes and post them. One question asked what the biggest problem was in hot spots.
“Too many damn people,” one person wrote. “If you promote it, they will come,” answered another.
Another question asked if a permit system would be supported. Approximately 30 sticky notes answered in the affirmative.
If the Forest Service heads that direction, it will come under a lengthy study and public comment period.
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