George Newman: Protecting our wilderness through adaptive management
The Wilderness Act of 1964 presented land managers with a difficult and challenging mandate: Wilderness areas were to be kept in a wild and natural state, relatively free of human control, while at the same time providing for our use and enjoyment. However, while wilderness designation provides the highest level of protection available to public lands, it provides no protection against impacts that can diminish wilderness character. High visitation in sensitive areas has disrupted the natural systems on which sensitive plants and animals rely, threatening the wilderness experience for all of us.
The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is experiencing serious disruption, highlighted by the party atmosphere at the Conundrum Hot Springs, resulting in the loss of a chief characteristic of wilderness: solitude. Elevated amounts of visitation have caused overcrowding, leading to significant impacts to sensitive alpine areas and intensified occurrences of human waste and trash. Human-wildlife conflicts also are on the rise. In 2013 more than 15,000 visitors descended on this backcountry area, mostly in the famous Four Pass Loop and crowded Conundrum Hot Springs. This was a 40 percent increase from just five years prior and the trend continues in an upward spiral.
After years of monitoring data and public input including an environmental analysis process, the U.S. Forest Service White River District Office released a draft decision on the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Overnight Visitor Use Management Plan. As noted in the USFS statement, “The plan will be implemented in phases as technical processes, physical and financial capacities allow.”
Phase 1 includes a reservation system for a limited entry overnight permit starting with the Conundrum Hot Springs Zone, and is expected to be in place for the summer season of 2018, pending objections and technical feasibility. It is the intent of the USFS to charge its standard $10 reservation fee and, hopefully, through yet another public process, collect an additional nominal fee that would stay within the White River to cover restoration and enhanced services in these heavily used areas. Phase 2 will include the popular Four-Pass Loop and Phase 3, the Capitol Lake area.
As Aspen-Snowmass District Ranger Karen Schroyer said, “This draft decision is an exciting milestone for addressing impacts in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.”
I believe we are well past the point where an overnight management plan is needed for this area. The concept of leave no trace is largely ignored or misunderstood by the general public. These areas have been negatively impacted by issues ranging from dogs off leash, illegal campsites and campfire pits, and — perhaps most disturbing — the amount of trash and human waste left behind.
Last year, wilderness rangers dealt with 273 incidents of unburied human waste and packed out 136 pounds of trash from Conundrum alone. As a result, “wag bags” will be required as part of the plan for Conundrum. Again, this plan applies only to the Maroon-Bells/Snowmass Wilderness Area, addresses only overnight use and will allow managers to be flexible in assessing specific areas and resource concerns. For example, size limits for groups may be incorporated.
We are so fortunate to have not only the Maroon-Bells/Snowmass Wilderness in our backyard but also four other designated wilderness areas that touch Pitkin County. Having spent a decade working for the Colorado Outward Bound School as an instructor and course director, I know the importance of instilling a wilderness ethic in those exploring the backcountry; understanding that others who follow will want that same wilderness experience. Education will play an integral role in the management plan. We all need to be responsible stewards of our wilderness areas.
As Edward Abbey said, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.”
Wilderness is a gift to all of us and for generations to come. I strongly support this management plan and ask that we all do. Let’s not “love our wilderness to death.”
For more detailed information on the plan, go to https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=49388.
George Newman is a Pitkin County commissioner.
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