USFS: mandatory trail registration enacted in Holy Cross Wilderness
Permits required: WRNF launches mandatory trail registration for Holy Cross WildernessBy Bob BerwynAlong with bug spray and trail mix, some hikers in the White River National Forest will also be required to carry a bit of government paperwork along the trail this summer, thanks to a mandatory permit system planned for the Holy Cross and Maroon Bells wilderness areas.According to Holy Cross District Ranger Cal Wettstein, every party will be required to register at the trailhead and to carry a copy of the permit during their visit. A similar system is used to monitor use in the Indian Peaks Wilderness west of Boulder, and in many national parks. Along with gathering information, the permitting process also gives the Forest Service an outlet for an educational message – the backside of the permit will include plenty of information on wilderness travel and the Leave No Trace policy."It is important to us that the registration have minimum impact on our wilderness users. We will make this as simple and as accessible as possible," Wettstein said in a prepared statement. To that end, the Forest Service will also offer monthly permits for local residents, even sending them out by mail. The free permits will also be available at Forest Service visitor centers. Commercial outfitters will not be required to fill out the paperwork since they already provide the same information under their special use permits.Forest managers will use the information to gain a more accurate picture of wilderness use. Depending on the results, the Forest Service may use the data to tweak management of some areas to achieve desired conditions. That means protecting resources and trying to ensure that visitor experiences meet required standards. According to the White River forest plan, for example, hikers in pristine wilderness zones should only encounter a specified number of people per day. But without accurate and reliable surveys, the agency has no way of knowing whether those standards are being met.The Wilderness Act mandates the highest level of protection for lands falling under its jurisdiction. Wilderness characteristics and natural resources are to be preserved, "untrammeled by man," and there are even special standards pertaining to air and water quality.Many common wilderness impacts stem from over-use, including the creation of so-called "social trails" around popular backcountry lakes and streamside camping areas. But for now, there are no plans to implement any sort of quota system. Wilderness managers have a wide range of management tools they can use, for example, requiring one-way travel on some trails to reduce encounters, separating stock traffic from backpacker traffic and even moving trailheads to make popular destinations more difficult to reach."We’re trying to correlate use by drainage, the type of use and where people are going," said Beth Boyst, wilderness specialist for the White River National Forest. Boyst said the agency will integrate the information with resource data – on trail conditions, for example – to provide a sound basis for management decisions.The Holy Cross and Maroon Bells were chosen to pilot the permit program because their location and known use patterns lend themselves to this type of data collection, forest officials said."We know we have a lot of use in those areas, but there’s not so much subdivision development adjacent to the wilderness," said Beth Boyst, wilderness specialist for the White River National Forest.The Forest Service currently uses voluntary trailhead registration to gather data, but nationally, only about one-third of the visitors sign those registers, according to Ralph Swain, the regional Forest Service wilderness program manager."Once visitors understand the intent and the reasons for the permit, compliance goes up," Swain said, using the Cloud Peak Wilderness in Wyoming as an example. In the first year of a mandatory permit program, the Forest Service saw a 40 percent compliance rate. In the second year, the rate increased to 80 percent and climbed to 90 percent in the third year."A lot of people are concerned about the trailhead data," said Breckenridge wilderness advocate Currie Craven, applauding the agency’s effort to get a better handle on wilderness use. Craven said there is reason to believe that the use could be exceeding capacity in some areas. But without adequate information, the Forest Service can’t really even begin to consider mitigation measures, he said.Craven, a co-founder of the Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness, said his group conducted a voluntary social monitoring program for a while, trying to get some of the same information the Forest Service will now collect with the permit system. But that effort ended in part because the agency wasn’t able to convert the raw data into any useful form.And while most people conjure up an image of a hearty, outdoors person when thinking of a wilderness ranger, the job description these days also includes number crunching. Several of the forest officials contacted for this story were attending a training session in Denver, learning how to use the software that will help them evaluate the information collected from the new permits.In some cases, the data may confirm existing problems, and in other cases, it may debunk certain assumptions, Swain explained. As an example, he cited the Eagle Cap Wilderness in Oregon, which launched a similar permit system several years ago. Wilderness managers found that their use estimates were much higher than the actual numbers. Instead of requiring some sort of quota system, the rangers simply changed the use pattern. By creating one-way routes to some destinations, they were able to increase the level of solitude experienced by visitors, one of the desired wilderness characteristics.