Forest Service will implement camping limits at Conundrum before expanding in Aspen-area wilderness
The White River National Forest said the overnight camping capacity is exceeded regularly in five zones out of 20 in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Those zones are:
1. Conundrum Hot Springs
2. Crater Lake
3. Snowmass Lake
4. West Maroon Valley and Minnehaha Gulch
5. Capitol Lake
Conundrum Hot Springs will be the first place in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness where a permit system will be implemented to manage overnight camping, U.S. Forest Service officials said Tuesday.
The permit system will likely be ready to roll out in 2018 or 2019, according to Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer.
A proposed Overnight Visitors Use Management Plan is also being studied as a tool to ease resource damage at popular spots along the Four Pass Loop as well as Capitol Lake, Schroyer said. But Conundrum Hot Springs, which attracts up to 300 backpackers on summer weekends, will be the guinea pig.
“We want to get Conundrum under our belts at least for a year,” Schroyer said.
The White River National Forest Supervisor’s Office released a draft Environmental Assessment Wednesday on a “proposed adaptive management plan” for the 181,535-acre wilderness area. Beefed up management is needed because the number of visitors is disturbing wildlife and changing the landscape. Wilderness rangers are reporting issues with unburied human waste, illegal campfires, denuding of vegetation and trash. There has also been a loss of the wilderness feel because of the high level of activity.
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The Environmental Assessment identifies five zones where the Forest Service wants to potential limit overnight visits from backpackers, climbers, hunters and other backcountry adventurers (see fact box). The wilderness as a whole has 18 to 20 zones, so many areas will not be affected by the proposed rules, Schroyer said. Only the hotspots — places identified as being “loved to death” — are being targeted, according to Kay Hopkins, recreation planner for the White River. About 20 wilderness areas nationwide have overnight use limits, she said.
A FAQ sheet prepared by the Forest Service said use has soared 285 percent in the most popular areas of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness between 2006 and 2015, based on data collected by wilderness rangers and other Forest Service personnel.
Even with camping restrictions, Conundrum Hot Springs could still be a hopping place. The immediate area has approximately 20 designated campsites, so the rules would allow up to 20 groups at one time. The Forest Service currently allows up to 10 people per group. That means the hot springs could have as many as 200 people camping around them legally. In reality, there are fewer than three people per group, according to Hopkins.
Backcountry visitors will see few if any changes this year.
The agency will use education and lower-level management tools to try to gain achieve greater preservation of the wilderness. One first-phase management tool could be requiring backpackers to pack out all human waste, Schroyer said. Currently waste bags are provided for voluntary use at many trailheads.
The Forest Service hasn’t declared yet that it will implement a permit and fee system, but that is the proposed action in the Environmental Assessment. If that proposal is approved, the plan says a fee could be charged to make reservations through an existing online database that covers national forest lands across the country. An alternative would be issuing permits out of a local office at no fee. A third option would be to create a Special Recreation Permit that would generate revenues that could be used in the wilderness area for management expenses.
Schroyer said a system is being considered that would make a portion of the campsites available six months ahead, some three months ahead and some just a couple of weeks away.
“We want to keep it as equitable as possible,” she said.
The dollar amount of a fee, if implemented, hasn’t been determined, Schroyer added.
Forest Service officials vowed Wednesday that they won’t create a system so onerous that it absorbs all the revenues to operate and enforce it.
“Enhanced management won’t be all about enforcement of a permit system,” Hopkins said.
Schroyer noted that the Forest Service reached out to the public for input before preparing the Environmental Assessment. More than 300 people commented “and most of the comments were in support,” she said.
A new, 30-day comment period opened with the release of the draft Environmental Assessment. A Final EA is scheduled to be released with a draft Decision Notice in mid-May.
The draft EA and other planning documents can be found at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=49388.
Comments can be submitted electronically by April 28 at https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public/CommentInput?Project=49388.