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Forest Service moves to preserve ‘hotspots’ in Maroon Bells wilderness

Reservations/permits and fee proposed for Four Pass Loop, Capitol Lake, with fee added for Conundrum

Backpackers will have to pay for overnight visits to the most popular places in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness starting next summer under a plan eyed by the White River National Forest.

The U.S. Forest Service unveiled a proposal Thursday to implement a reservation and permit system with a fee of $12 per person per night for the Four Pass Loop, the Capitol Lake area and Geneva Lake starting next year. It would also start charging the $12 fee at Conundrum Hot Springs, which already requires a reservation and permit.

The fee would be for overnight visits only and would be in place from May 1 through Oct. 31. Permits would be required through recreation.gov, which currently charges an additional $6 processing fee. No fee is being contemplated for day trippers in the wilderness area.



The sweeping change is designed to ease the environmental degradation that has occurred in recent year at places such as Snowmass Lake, a stunningly beautiful stop along the popular 26-mile Four Pass Loop. There is currently no limit to the number of people camping there. It has resulted in illegal camps in sensitive areas, dumping of trash, exposure of human waste and loss of the wilderness character.

“Untracked ground continues to get tracked, basically,” Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Kevin Warner said Thursday. “That place is a free-for-all currently, to be honest.”



The number of overnight visitors has quadrupled between 2006 and 2020 in the wilderness area outside of Aspen, according to the Forest Service. Overnight use soared last year during the COVID-19 pandemic summer, when people flocked to outdoor activities. Aspen Journalism, a partner of The Aspen Times, recently reported that overnight use of the 10 most popular trails in the wilderness area set a record last summer. There were 18,324 people registered to camp, Aspen Journalism reported.

The limited entry system is intended to “flatten the spikes” of people visiting on weekends and holidays, Warner said. It is assumed that use would be spread more evenly across the week. It would result in a better experience for most backpackers because they know they would have a spot and a limited number of neighbors.

Hikers come out of the Conundrum Hot Springs area, which is a popular hiking destination near Aspen. It is a 8.5-mile hike from the trailhead to the springs, which sit at 11,222 feet. (David Krause/The Aspen Times)

The Forest Service has already approved the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Overnight Visitor Management Plan. That was used to implement the reservation and permit system in 2018 at Conundrum Hot Springs after extensive study and preparation. That same management system allows permits and reservations for other heavily visited sites in the 181,535-acre wilderness area.

Warner said the Four Pass Loop and Capitol Lake have exceeded the threshold for groups at one time in at least three of the past five years, the criteria needed to implement the system. Conundrum was well above the threshold when the system was implemented in 2018. Geneva Lake is being added because it is a short spur off the Four Pass Loop.

“It’s just going to get hammered” without protection, Warner said.

Backpackers accessing the Four Pass Loop from the Gunnison National Forest outside of Crested Butte would be subject to the permit system.

“It doesn’t matter where you start. It just matters where you camp for the night,” Warner said.

While the Forest Service has legal authority for the permit and reservation system, it needs funds to implement and enforce the plan, and restore damaged areas. The White River staff’s preliminary estimate is the fee would generate $500,000 annually for the agency.

“Nearly every cent” would stay in the White River National Forest rather than go to the Forest Service headquarters or the National Treasury, Warner said. “The $12 comes back to the national forest to manage those areas better.”

The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act allows the agency to charge a fee and keep the funds for the benefit of the forest.

How to comment

For more information on the proposed overnight fee and for a link on submitting comments, go to http://www.fs.usda.gov/whiteriver.

The U.S. Forest Service is urging people to go beyond stating they support or oppose the proposed $12 per person, per night fee. They are looking for reasons the fee should be implemented or alternatives to a fee for protecting pristine places.

The Forest Service is inviting people to comment on the fee only since the permit and reservation system already went through the public review process. The White River has received special funds from the regional office to administer the permit and reservation system the past four years at Conundrum, but those funds are disappearing.

The public comment period is open through Sept. 15.

“We truly, truly want to hear from people,” Warner said. The agency is reaching out to the public in the Roaring Fork Valley and to organizations in the Front Range to inform them about the proposal and the comment opportunity.

Warner said it is natural to expect some local residents to be wary of a fee to visit places in their backyard. However, the Roaring Fork public has also acknowledged the wilderness hotspots need greater protection.

“We got really favorable comments from the overnight visitor management plan in general,” Warner said.

He noted that the permit and fee system would affect about 28% of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. It is expected that the limited entry and fee system would push people to the remaining 72% of the wilderness area and into other areas of the national forest surrounding Aspen.

Curing the environmental harm and loss of wilderness character at the heavily visited areas is worth the consequences in the eyes of Forest Service officials.

“I’m confident they’ll have a better experience,” Warner said.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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