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Wild being worn out of wilderness?

Scott CondonVail, CO Colorado
A special committee is examining overuse of popular spots in nine of the 35 wilderness areas on national forest lands in Colorado. The nine wilderness areas shaded in yellow are showing wear and tear. (Courtesy the U.S. Forest Service)
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ASPEN – Imagine a crisp, cool summer morning near Cathedral Lake in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. You emerge from your tent, tiptoe through the dew-soaked grass, inhale the fresh pine scent, then glance around and see a sight that sends you scurrying inside.Four other backpackers pitched camp after you turned in, some alarmingly close to “your” space; others too close to the water’s edge. Hordes of day hikers have already converged on the lake during their wildflower outings. Some let their friendly dogs wander over to say hello.

The U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain regional office in Denver has convened a special committee over the past year to debate what’s wrong with that picture. More to the point, the agency wants to know if it should do anything about it.Colorado’s growing population, coupled with soaring visits to public lands, has the Forest Service concerned about the fate of some of most scenic spots in wilderness lands. Public lands managers call those cream-of-the-crop sites “popular magnets.”The Forest Service’s special committee consists of about 18 representatives of conservation and recreation groups considered “stakeholders” in the condition of wilderness lands. With the help of Forest Service wilderness experts, the committee has narrowed its focus to nine wilderness areas out of the 35 in Colorado.

The nine spots the committee says are showing wear include the Holy Cross Wilderness and Eagle’s Nest Wilderness in Eagle County and the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and Collegiate Peaks Wilderness outside Aspen.

“No one wants to see access to those fantastic places curtailed,” said T.J. Rapoport, committee member and executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. “On the other hand, nobody wants those fantastic places damaged.”Colorado is lucky enough to have some of the most stunning wild lands in the world, Rapoport said. But some of areas, particularly peaks above 14,000 feet and high-elevation lakes, are getting heavily used and showing the physical impacts. “It’s the blessing and curse of public land heritage,” Rapoport said.The problem has become severe enough in places that the Forest Service is taking its first statewide look at it, said Steve Sherwood, director of recreation, heritage and wilderness resources for the Rocky Mountain Region.”If we don’t address this issue now, it only becomes harder,” Sherwood said.But the Forest Service doesn’t want a blanket policy, he said. Steps that are necessary in the Mount Evans Wilderness, in Denver’s backyard, might be overkill in the more remote Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.Rapoport and committee member Steve Smith, assistant regional director for The Wilderness Society and a Glenwood Springs resident, said the group probably won’t recommend adopting a broad permit system for overnight visits to the troubled wilderness areas or restrictions on the number of daytime visitors.Smith favors what he called “surgical restrictions” to ease the burden on “hammered places.” For example, if campers have worn the ground bare on one side of a lake, temporary prohibitions on camping might be necessary, he said.It is important to keep people enthusiastic about wilderness lands in national forests, Smith said. National parks typically implement permit systems, and people accept them, he noted. But wilderness in national forests is often regarded as a backyard playground that people want to visit with more spontaneity.Wilderness lands already prohibit motorized vehicles. With more restrictions, people might not support the creation of more wilderness. “I want to make sure we don’t crimp people’s feelings about wilderness in general,” Smith said.

Rapoport said the committee has concentrated on the physical impacts such as trail erosion, the proliferation of fire rings and stripping of trees for firewood. It is much harder for the agency to deal with the “social impacts” of heavy wilderness use, Rapoport said. When does crowding reach a point where wilderness lands no longer offer the opportunity for solitude, he asked.

During a field trip on a Saturday last summer, committee members found 287 vehicles parked along the road at a trailhead up Mount Bierstadt, a fourteener in the Mount Evans Wilderness, Sherwood said. The Indian Peaks Wilderness near Boulder, also on the group’s list, is the only wilderness in the state with required permits and fees for backpacking. Colorado has a particular culture that probably wouldn’t appreciate widespread rules like those that exist at the Indian Peaks Wilderness, Rapoport said.”It’s not a culture that likes to be fenced in and have a lot of rules,” he said.Smith hopes members of volunteer organizations will patrol the busy areas and encourage visitors to clean up after themselves and take care of the land, Smith said. He also is hopeful education can help prevent “warm spots” – areas that are starting to show wear and tear from use – from becoming more damaged hot spots, he said. Any suggestion the committee makes to the Forest Service will hinge on the agency getting additional funding, Rapoport said.”The resources available to the Forest Service to manage these magnet areas are inadequate,” he said.


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