When are wilderness lands no longer wild?
Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN Imagine a crisp, cool summer morning near Cathedral Lake in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. You emerge from your tent, tiptoe through the dew-soaked grass, inhale the fresh pine scent, then glance around and see a sight that sends you scurrying inside.Four other backpackers pitched camp after you turned in, some alarmingly close to “your” space; others too close to the water’s edge. Hordes of day hikers have already converged on the lake during their wildflower outings. Some let their friendly dogs wander over to say hello.The U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain regional office in Denver has convened a special committee over the past year to debate what’s wrong with that picture. More to the point, the agency wants to know if it should do anything about it.
Colorado’s growing population, coupled with soaring visits to public lands by in- and out-of-state residents, has the Forest Service concerned about the fate of some of most scenic spots in the wilderness. Public lands managers call those cream-of-the-crop sites “popular magnets.”The Forest Service’s special committee consists of about 18 representatives of conservation and recreation groups considered “stakeholders” in the condition of wilderness lands. With the help of Forest Service wilderness experts, the committee has narrowed its focus to nine wilderness areas out of the 35 in Colorado.Hot spots surround AspenThe nine the committee deemed to have the most popular magnets that are showing wear include the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, outside Aspen.The committee is scheduled to make recommendations to Regional Forester Rick Cables on Feb. 20. Committee members already have made it clear there are no easy answers.”No one wants to see access to those fantastic places curtailed,” said T.J. Rapoport, committee member and executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. “On the other hand, nobody wants those fantastic places damaged.”Colorado is lucky enough to have some of the most stunning wild lands in the world, Rapoport said. But some of areas, particularly peaks above 14,000 feet and high-elevation lakes, are getting heavily used and showing the physical impacts.”It’s the blessing and curse of public land heritage,” Rapoport said.The problem has become severe enough in places that the Forest Service is taking its first statewide look at it, said Steve Sherwood, director of recreation, heritage and wilderness resources for the Rocky Mountain Region.”If we don’t address this issue now, it only becomes harder,” Sherwood said.
But the Forest Service doesn’t want a blanket policy, he said. Steps that are necessary in the Mount Evans Wilderness, in Denver’s backyard, might be overkill in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.’Surgical restrictions’ possibleRapoport and committee member Steve Smith, assistant regional director for The Wilderness Society and a Glenwood Springs resident, said the group probably won’t recommend adopting a broad permit system for overnight use in the troubled wilderness areas or restrictions on the number of day users.Smith favors what he called “surgical restrictions” to ease the burden on “hammered places.” For example, if campers have worn the ground bare on one side of a lake, temporary prohibitions on camping might be necessary, he said.It is important to keep people enthusiastic about wilderness lands in national forests, Smith said. National parks typically implement permit systems, and people accept them on those special lands, he noted. But wilderness in national forests is often regarded as a backyard playground that people want to access with spontaneity.Wilderness lands already prohibit mechanized uses. With more restrictions on use, people might not support the creation of more wilderness, Smith said: “I want to make sure we don’t crimp people’s feelings about wilderness in general.”Rapoport said the committee has concentrated on the need for the Forest Service to address physical impacts of heavy use on popular magnets. Qualities like erosion of trails, proliferation of fire rings and stripping of trees for firewood are concerns.’Don’t fence me in’It is much harder for the agency to address the social impacts of heavy wilderness use, Rapoport said. When does crowding reach a point where wilderness lands no longer offer the opportunity for solitude?
The committee members took a field trip on a Saturday last summer where they found 287 vehicles parked along the road at a trailhead up Mount Bierstadt, a fourteener in the Mount Evans Wilderness, according to Sherwood. Another field trip went to the Indian Peaks Wilderness near Boulder, the only wilderness in the state with required permits and fees for backpacking.Colorado has a particular culture that probably wouldn’t appreciate widespread rules like those that exist at the Indian Peaks Wilderness, Rapoport said.”It’s not a culture that likes to be fenced in and have a lot of rules,” he said. “I don’t know that anything unpopular is going to roll out” of the committee.Smith favors an approach heavy on education, along with surgical restrictions. His vision is to have members of volunteer organizations visit the magnet areas and urge users to follow the “Leave No Trace” principles of minimizing impacts on public lands. (See http://www.lnt.org.)He is hopeful education can help prevent “warm spots” – areas that are starting to show wear and tear from use – from becoming hot spots. Cathedral Lake outside of Aspen is an example of a warm spot to him.Any suggestion the committee makes to the Forest Service will hinge on the agency getting additional funding, Rapoport said.”The resources available to the Forest Service to manage these magnet areas are inadequate,” he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.