Forest Service signs off on plan to limit backpackers in heavily used areas of Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness | VailDaily.com

Forest Service signs off on plan to limit backpackers in heavily used areas of Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness

Scott Condon | The Aspen Times
Conundrum Hot Springs are 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.

The White River National Forest will start implementing a system to limit backpackers in heavily visited hot spots of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness after hurdles were cleared, officials announced Wednesday.

The regional office of the U.S. Forest Service ruled Tuesday on two citizen objections to the proposed Wilderness Overnight Use Management Plan. Minor clarifications were required on three points that addressed how backpackers would be limited and at what numbers. With those clarifications, the regional office gave its blessing to implement the plan.

Officials in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District said the limits are needed to protect the ecosystem at some of the most popular spots in the wilderness area — Conundrum Hot Springs, the Four Pass Loop and Capital Lake. There’s been an explosion of visits to those areas.

“The plan has been years in the making, beginning with decades of documentation of environmental impacts, along with countless years of data collection, and community involvement,” said Aspen-Sopris District ranger Karen Schroyer. “We have finally arrived at a decision that will protect this beloved wilderness area while ensuring recreational opportunities into the future.”

The first phase will be creating a reservation system for a limited-entry overnight permit in the Conundrum Hot Springs zone.

Limits on lower Conundrum Valley will be implemented separately.

U.S. Forest Service officials say efforts to get people to camp in designated spots has had limited effectiveness.

The next phase will be limiting backpackers at one time on the popular Four Pass Loop. The third phase will be limits for overnight visitation at Capital Lake. A timeline hasn’t been established for the two later phases.

Permits for camping in Conundrum Valley will be required year-round. Campers will need to obtain their permits prior to their trip at Recreation.gov. Details on how to obtain a permit will be available in early 2018.

Schroyer said the reservation system at Conundrum Hot Springs should ease the overcrowding that occurs and restore more natural conditions, but there will still be plenty of opportunities to visit the area.

The plan calls for utilization of 20 sites near the hot springs.

“Most of the negative impacts we’ve seen have come from too many people staying in a site that can’t accommodate them all and all the overflow camping surrounding the hot springs,” she said. “We believe the sites are appropriately located to minimize impacts and now each of those sites will have a limited capacity.”

The Forest Service still must determine how many people will be allowed per site. Schroyer said it will likely be between three and five campers. Some spots will be limited to two. Late arrivals won’t be able to crash wherever they find room, she said.

The way the plan is written, the Forest Service can make adjustments without reopening a time-consuming review process.

“If we’re not seeing a notable improvement on the ground, we have the ability to respond by moving site locations, closing sites and adjusting group size limits per site,” she said.

U.S. Forest Service officials said Wednesday they have cleared the last hurdle and will start implementing a reservation system starting in 2018.

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