Editorial: Consider permit system for Conundrum
Saturday is the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act — an action by Congress that helped define Aspen as much as the silver boom of the late 1800s, the nurturing of skiing or the creation of the Aspen Institute.
There’s a lot to celebrate. There are 316,000 acres of wilderness in the Roaring Fork River watershed that are forever protected from motorized and mechanized uses. They provide some of the most iconic mountains in the country in the Maroon Bells and such lesser-known gems as the Fryingpan Lakes.
But there is also cause for concern. Some of the most popular destinations in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness are getting loved to death. Wilderness rangers for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District counted 50 backpackers at Conundrum Hot Springs on July 25. While the rangers were hiking out, another 160 backpackers were hiking in for a soak. Those numbers don’t include people heading into the hot springs from the Crested Butte side of the Continental Divide.
The U.S. Forest Service needs to consider implementing a permit system for Conundrum Hot Springs and possibly the Four Pass Loop. The amount of use justifies thoroughly vetting the issue.
On the plus side, limits could save the fragile ecosystems from expanded damage. As it stands, the increasing number of visitors forces people to camp in less desirable locations over a broader area. In the case of Conundrum, the impact of that many people is spreading far beyond the immediate area of the hot springs.
Critics will contend that a permit system is ruining some innocent backcountry fun with overregulation. We’re not buying that argument. The National Park System requires permits for the White Rim Trail, a popular mountain-biking and camping route north of Moab, Utah. It takes patience and persistence to score a permit. But it’s worth it for the people riding the trail and camping in the designated sites. Look elsewhere around Moab to see how the White Rim Trail would be overrun without the permit system.
Rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is another permit system that has served the ecosystem well.
Numerous sites within the National Park System, such as Black Canyon of the Gunnison as well as Utah’s Canyonlands, both within an easy drive of Aspen, place limits and require permits for users.
One potential drawback to issuing a limited number of permits to places like Conundrum Hot Springs and the Four Pass Loop is the risk of simply spreading the use to areas that are now pristine. However, we’re not keen on writing Conundrum off as a sacrifice zone.
The White River National Forest hasn’t updated management plans for its wilderness areas since 1988, according to forest officials. It’s time those sub-area plans get a fresh look. When they do, the Forest Service should take a close look at establishing permits at Conundrum and the Four Pass Loop and collect public comments.