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Wilderness "Hot Spots" See Increasing Crowds

Marci Krivonen

The Forest Service is beginning the discussion about how to deal with increasing problems with crowds in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness. This summer saw huge numbers of visitors at popular spots like Crater Lake and the Four Pass Loop. As Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports, forest service officials are working to educate the public before exploring solutions.

Rangers in the Aspen Sopris Ranger District released a youtube video in October detailing the problems they saw this summer.

Video: "The Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness is experiencing a degradation of character. Elevated amounts of visitation are causing wilderness crowding."

Photos in the video show rangers repairing illegal campfire sites and removing trash. This summer they pulled 640 pounds of garbage out of the wilderness area and buried 168 piles of human feces.

Credit Marci Krivonen

The number of people visiting popular areas is climbing. Crater Lake saw a 26 percent increase in visitation from the year before. Rangers counted 54,000 people on the trail over four summer months. That’s an average of 362 visitors per day. Andrew Larson is the Lead Wilderness Ranger on the Aspen/Sopris Ranger District.

"The use is increasing in a few key places. Some places are getting more and more popular and drawing bigger crowds, while other places are kind of being forgotten about."

Other popular spots include the Aspen to Crested Butte hike, the Four Pass Loop, Snowmass Lake, Capitol Lake and Conundrum Hot Springs.

I caught up to Ranger Intern Noah Teller and his colleagues at the Conundrum Hot Springs trailhead this summer. A storage container was full of garbage.

Credit Marci Krivonen
A group of rangers does repair and clean up work at the trailhead for Conundrum Hot Springs.

"Not only is this a hassle to pack out, but it’s dangerous. If we leave food soiled trash in here in a non-secure canister, bears can become accustomed to hanging out at the trailhead and other wildlife can eat the plastic and get hurt by it. It’s no good."

The rangers think people are flocking to these places partly because of publicity. Whatever the reason, the numbers are growing and Forest Service officials are looking for solutions.

Lead Ranger Andrew Larson says the document that guides management in the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness is nearly 30 years old and needs an update.

"The last management plan did not anticipate the increased visitation that we’re getting right now. So, we need to update our look at how we’re meeting the intent of the Wilderness Act, which is to keep wilderness wild. I feel like we’re failing in a few ways, in a few places right now."

The problem is the Forest Service operates on a tight budget with a thin staff and, a reworked plan with public input and environmental review would take lots of staff time. So for now, the Forest Service is working on educating people through things like online videos.

"We want to show the public the issues we’re dealing with. And once the public’s aware of the challenges and issues we’re facing, we want to see how the public would feel about some management changes," Larson says.

Larson thinks the conversation about updating the plan will start this winter.

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