Visits drop in national forest surrounding Aspen, the valley
December 3, 2008
ASPEN ” Solitude is a little easier to find these days in the White River National Forest surrounding Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, at least in theory.
Total visits to the White River dropped by about 249,500, or 2.5 percent, between 2002 and 2007, according to a new study by the U.S. Forest Service. Data culled from extensive representative surveys and actual counts in the woods show there were 9,370,210 visits in 2002 compared to 9,120,800 five years later.
The White River National Forest has always been one of the most heavily used for recreation in the country, largely because it is home to 11 ski areas, including the four operated by the Aspen Skiing Co. as well as four operated by Vail Resorts.
The sprawling forest covers 2.3 million acres from south of Aspen to north of Glenwood Springs and from Rifle to Summit County. Skiers and snowboard riders accounted for 76.5 percent of the visits in 2007, the Forest Service study showed. But even without those numbers, the White River receives more than 2 million visits annually.
“It still says we’re one of the busiest in the nation,” said Rich Doak, recreation planner with the forest supervisor’s office.
Nationally, visits to forests plummeted 13 percent between 2002 and 2007, the agency reported. So the losses aren’t as great in the central Colorado Rockies and, in fact, there may not even be a decline in the White River. Doak said the supervisor’s office is working with the national office to make sure some sampling assumptions about users numbers were accurate.
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The study, for example, showed the number of people fishing declined between 2002 and 2007, while anecdotal evidence indicates it increased. Angling is a difficult use to gauge because participants are so spread out.
Some forest uses are easy to tabulate. The 11 ski areas, which use public lands for part or all of their operations, must report their visits. The Forest Service conducted 2,269 surveys to come up with a representative sample of White River visitors.
The way the White River is getting used might be more interesting than the total number of users. Tim Lamb, a recreation technician with the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, spent 40-some days in the field last summer contacting forest visitors. His impression is that popular destinations in the forest are as heavily used as ever.
The trails and roads on and around Basalt Mountain are a big draw for mountain bikers, dirt bikers and hikers, he said. Overnight permits issued for camping at the Conundrum Hot Springs southwest of Aspen in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness held steady over the last five years, he said.
The Holy Cross Wilderness accessed on the north side of Frying Pan Road saw a surge in use in recent years. That could be a product of a growing midvalley population. It also could reflect the interest of Aspenites to expand their horizons in a different part of the valley.
“People are always looking for new hikes,” Lamb said.
The White River study indicated fewer people visited wilderness areas in 2007.
Those wild lands are often harder to reach and harder to travel in once they are reached. All mechanized travel is prohibited in wilderness. Slightly fewer people reported camping in the White River in 2007 than five years earlier and there was a bigger decline in the number of people backpacking.
Ralph Swain, wilderness program manager for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region, said the national trend is for declining forest visits “except in certain popular magnet areas.” Popular destinations such as the Maroon Bells and the 14,000-foot high peaks that are on national forest lands are often overwhelmed with visitors.
“You used to see the top of a 14er with 50 people. Now you might see 100,” Swain
The trend in Colorado wilderness areas is for people to spend more time on day hikes and less time overnight, according to Swain. Although he had no hard data to verify that’s happening the White River, he suspects the trend holds true there.
That has implications for forest visitors as well as land managers. Hikers will concentrate on fewer trails ” those they can cover in a day. Anyone hiking West Maroon Creek from Aspen to Crested Butte knows they cannot count on viewing the awesome summer wildflowers on their own. Hordes hike the route. Solitude is usually wishful thinking.
But recent travel patterns also present advantages for hikers who are ready, willing and able to strike out farther into the woods. If popular destinations are as popular as ever but overall visitor numbers are down, that means there is a lot of terrain out there that sees little use. Lamb said some trails in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District are hiked by only a handful of people on weekdays. “There is still a lot of opportunity for that,” Lamb said, referring to solitude.
He also has noticed people seem to have specific destinations in mind, like a lake or a 14,000-foot peak, as opposed to a simple desire to be out in the woods.
“People seem a lot more goal oriented,” he said.
That has an effect on the landscape. The Four-Pass Loop in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass has received substantial national recognition in recent years as one of the most scenic backpacking trips in the country. As a result, forest rangers have witnessed more backcountry campsites established along the 27-mile loop. In contrast, some historic camps in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness, between Aspen and Frying Pan Road, are growing over from lack of use, Lamb noted.
So who is the typical White River visitor? The Forest Service survey showed most visitors tend to be middle-aged, rich, white guys. Twenty-five percent of the people surveyed had household incomes between $100,000 and $149,999 and another 28 percent had incomes of $150,000 and greater. (The income data is skewed by the fact that so many visitors are skiers; Aspen and Vail are playgrounds of the wealthy.)
About 61 percent of visitors were male and 39 percent female last year.
About 50 percent of forest visitors were over age 40 in 2007, with the 40 to 49 age bracket the one most heavily represented. And 98.6 percent of forest visitors last year were white. The number of Latino visitors dropped from 2.58 percent in 2002 to 0.7 percent last year.
Doak said he was impressed by the distance that many visitors travel to visit the White River. Almost 50 percent of forest visitors said they traveled 200 miles or more to visit the forest.
“We truly are a destination,” he said.
The data also confirms local residents like to play in their backyard. Nearly 23 percent of visitors traveled 25 miles or less to reach their forest destination. Pitkin County zip codes popped up most frequently among users.