The Bells prep for seasonal swarms |

The Bells prep for seasonal swarms

Chad Abraham
Billie Lillie, far left, volunteers at the Maroon Bells, where she and her husband help keep the information area clean, answer questions and serve as camp hosts. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

The man in the SUV had a question for Jessica Prada, a U.S. Forest Service employee manning the toll booth below the Maroon Bells.”What kind of attractions are up ahead?” he said.Prada dutifully began explaining Maroon Lake’s scenery and the various hikes available, including the Crater Lake trail and the waterfalls nearby.No, he and his family would not be hiking, the man said. But they paid the $10 fee anyway Wednesday and drove up, one of the last vehicles allowed to do so, as bus- and bicycle-only access begins Saturday during most hours.

Prada and her fellow seasonal Forest Service workers are just warming up, of course. These early visitors were just the start of the 150,000 expected to see the wondrous Bells this summer.The unique area, which one Forest Service official said is essentially a “mini-national park,” is both a blessing and a curse to the Aspen-Sopris ranger district.The twin 14,000-foot peaks make up one of the West’s most recognizable vistas; subsequently, the Maroon Bells visitor area draws most of the district’s manpower. But it also generates, through vehicle and bus fees, most of the $120,000 that the district budgets for the site’s operation.More than $80,000 of that goes toward paying employees like Prada to maintain the Bells’ campgrounds and bathrooms, and answer visitors’ questions, said Martha Moran, district recreation manager.

“We’re really having to focus on a few things,” she said.The district’s responsibilities are immense, covering 40 percent of the White River National Forest, the nation’s most visited. For this vast stretch – 766,000 acres of wilderness – the Forest Service has allocated a lone ranger to enforce backcountry laws and deal with mining and grazing issues, among other tasks; and a two-man crew responsible for maintaining hundreds of miles of trails.That such a burden falls on just three people’s shoulders is a reminder of recent budget cuts that mean some areas will be neglected this summer.”Our challenge out of our recreation strategy is the dispersed recreation, the places where people [hike] to camp overnight,” Moran said. “We’re really struggling on that.”

Pearl Pass and Red Table Mountain, for example, won’t have top maintenance priority this summer. The district simply doesn’t have the manpower to monitor such locations and will instead focus on high-use wilderness such as Conundrum and Snowmass lakes.Volunteers continue to play a large role as the district’s eyes and ears in the wilderness, Moran said. Groups such as the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers are invaluable on trail-maintenance projects, while wilderness rangers are people trained to monitor wilderness areas and answer questions. They are also paid a stipend. So many want to help, in fact, that Moran said she needs a volunteer coordinator.”People who really care about it keep me going,” she said. “But it does get challenging over time.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is

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