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Limiting access to Wilderness "hot spots" successful in other national forests

High Country News

The changes the White River National Forest is considering to minimize crowds in wilderness areas have been successful in other forests. Last week, Forest Service officials began an informal outreach effort around how to bring back solitude to busy trails and backcountry camping. As Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports, their ideas have been tried in other wilderness areas.

Aspen Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer is delivering a presentation to a packed house in Aspen. She’s working to educate people about problems in the forest and solicit feedback.

“As we go through this slideshow together, I’d like you guys to think about this one question I have. What would you like the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness to look like 50 years from now?”

Her slide show focuses on the 183,000-acre Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness. The popular area is seeing overcrowding at spots like Conundrum Hot Springs, the Four Pass Loop and on a short trail from Maroon to Crater Lake.

“In two separate days in September of 2014, we had over 1200 people a day, hiking that trail. Now, if you’re going to wilderness to experience solitude, that’s probably not where you want to go.”

The crowding leads to ecological degradation. Campers leave behind trash, human waste and illegal campfires. Some don’t store food adequately.

“In August of 2014, we were forced to close all of the sites, the camping sites around Crater Lake, and we were forced to close them for the remainder of the season because there had been so many bear-human conflicts up there. It was becoming a very serious, dangerous situation.”

The crowding isn’t a surprise. In 2007, the Forest Service pulled together a focus group that examined Colorado’s 35 wilderness areas. The group pinpointed three with “magnet areas,” where average daily visitor use levels are the highest. The Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness was one of them. Martha Moran is with the White River National Forest.

“They made all these recommendations that we were already using in the Maroon Bells Wilderness.”

The group had 14 suggestions to control crowds, like implement dog policies and manage human waste. The White River has done them all — except for two: implementing rules around length of stay and limited entry permits.

“We are at the end of our tools in the toolbox unless we say you can only go so many days in the wilderness, which is an untrammeled characteristic we don’t want to deal with and the limited entry system," says Moran.

One question posed to those at Thursday’s meeting was “Would you support a limited use permit system for Conundrum Hot Springs or the Four Pass Loop?”

“Oh yeah, definitely," says David Kashinski.

Kashinski is an Aspen resident who says he’s seen permit systems work on other public lands.

“I was in California last year where they’re working with a permit system that works for the people to be able to have access to it and use the resource, which makes it better in the long run, I think.”

Darlene Liss of Aspen knows about crowding first-hand. She spends her summers volunteering at a visitors center near Maroon Lake.

“I am in favor of permits, as long as it goes along with education. There has to be a lot of education about what the wilderness is, how to preserve it, how to keep it, how to respect it.”

Local resident Morgan Boyles, who’s in his 20s, doesn’t favor “knit-picky” rules, but with population growth, a permit system may be needed. But, he doesn’t want to see anyone who wants a wilderness experience kept out.

"If there’s a permit system I wouldn’t necessarily want it to harm those feelings of wilderness that you gain because I think those are becoming rarer and rarer in our culture nowadays.”

One national forest that’s had success with limited use permits is in Oregon. The Willamette National Forest limits the number of people allowed in parts of its wilderness. Before the permits, people were pitching tents everywhere and impacting the vegetation, says Matt Peterson, the forest’s recreation program manager.

“There really was a decrease in the amount of barren ground, ground that had been impacted by camping. Because of the decreased amount of use, there really was a chance for the natural resource out there - the vegetation and meadows — to recover from the impacts.”

The White River National Forest isn’t making any hard and fast changes. A permit system would need to go through a lengthy government process. At this point, forest officials are just getting a feel for the kinds of management changes the public would favor. 

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