The conundrum facing Maroon Bells: Too many visitors, too many rules, too much alienation

Pitkin County commissioners want to make sure local residents get their say in new study

A road biker pedals up to the Maroon Bells on Maroon Creek Road outside of Aspen on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Pitkin County commissioners want to make sure local residents don’t face further barriers to visiting the Maroon Bells once a comprehensive management plan wraps up in about six months.

The county is a partner in funding a study that will determine “sustainable visitor access to the Maroon Bells Scenic Area and identify how to achieve it.” The study is being undertaken by the renowned Volpe Center, a research and advisory arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The Volpe Center plans to engage in a process that includes general public meetings, smaller “stakeholder” sessions and online surveys.

The first public meeting will be held June 9 at the Pitkin County commissioners’ meeting room (see information box for details).

The commissioners stressed to the Volpe Center’s Ben Rasmussen, a public lands team leader, that every effort must be made to reach out to local residents for their input. For example, the commissioners said, the outreach should include gatherings by senior services and the Aspen Historical Society.

Visiting Maroon Lake and the area surrounding the Maroon Bells has been an important part of the lives of so many families in the Roaring Fork Valley, Commissioner Greg Poschman said.

“It’s like a temple for so many of us,” he said.

Poschman and Commissioner Steve Child suggested that the crowded conditions and efforts to corral people have alienated local residents used to days of less restrictive access.

“It doesn’t need any more people,” Child said. “I’m one of the longtime locals that would love to go there more but it’s kind of a hassle getting there.”

Commissioner Francie Jacober said she has quit visiting the Maroon Lake area except when out-of-town visitors want to go there.

“It’s just not worth it,” she said. “There are lots of other places to go that aren’t so crowded.”

There is a conundrum facing the U.S. Forest Service and its partners. As certain areas in the White River National Forest draw more attention in the social media age, the powers-that-be enact stricter access that alienates local residents. People give up on visiting destinations that helped attract them to the area.

Private vehicles overran the Maroon Lake area decades ago and resulted in damage to natural resources. Pitkin County and the Forest Service limited access by private vehicles and started a shuttle system now run by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. In summer 2020, a reservation system was implemented for a limited number of parking spaces for private vehicle access and for shuttle seats. The reservation system remains in place and is likely here to stay, given the direction of the new study.

The vision statement for the study is: “Proactively and sustainably manage users (i.e. visitors and local), access, and infrastructure to provide positive and equitable outdoor recreation experiences while preserving resources in the Maroon Creek corridor.”

Add your voice

The general public will get its first chance to weigh in on a comprehensive study of access and use of the Maroon Bells Scenic Area in a meeting June 9.

The meeting will be held at the county commissioners’ meeting room at 530 E. Main St. in Aspen. People are invited to stop by anytime from 5 to 7 p.m. in an open-house format. Participants can circulate among several stations where graphics and team members will provide more details, answer questions and record input.


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