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The environment desk at Aspen Public Radio covers issues in the Roaring Fork Valley and throughout the state of Colorado including water use and quality, impact of recreation, population growth and oil and gas development. APR’s Environment Reporter is Elizabeth Stewart-Severy.

Managing the wild masses: Permit system takes shape

Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Public Radio News

Backpackers looking to stay the night in the most popular areas of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness will soon need a permit to do so. The U.S. Forest Service recently released a plan to manage overnight visitors in the backcountry.


Andrew Larson, lead ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, is tasked with upholding the wilderness act, which means preserving the natural conditions and solitude expected in backcountry areas. In popular spots like Conundrum Hot Springs, this is not always easy.


Credit Aspen Public Radio News
The campsite used for a bachelor's party in July 2016 at Conundrum Hot Springs.

“Conundrum has a unique demographic of all of the wilderness,” Larson said. “The people who go there are not always seeking a wilderness experience, and people don’t understand we are required to provide a wilderness experience even if they’re not seeking a wilderness experience.”

The fragile high country ecosystems are feeling the impacts of heavy use. In the most popular spots, trash, illegal campsites, fires, noise and unburied human waste have all become major issues.
But not for long. The public has until Dec. 5 to comment on the Forest Service’s plan to limit the number of groups that can camp in 30 areas across the backcountry. At an open house earlier this month, recreation planner Kay Hopkins said this plan sets the framework for requiring permits when the number of campers exceeds the established limits.

“We have used literally everything in the toolbox and this is our last step,” Hopkins said.

Backpackers can expect to go online to sign up for permits in overused places.

Parts of this wilderness area have seen a lot of people for a long time. A study from 1988 — nearly 30 years ago — recommended a permitting system, but it’s taken decades to gain momentum. The current plan focuses on three classifications of wilderness.

Places like Conundrum, Maroon Bells and American and Cathedral lakes are “semi-primitive.” That means hikers and campers should expect to see other people  — sometimes a lot of people. In 33 days of patrolling on the Maroon/Snowmass Trail at the Maroon Bells, rangers ran into more than 3,200 people.

Conundrum might be even worse.

“When there’s 300 people up there, we have an overflow area down below, and it looks like a festival,” Larson said. “People will set up flags and everything, and it looks like a full-on music festival. And it’s loud like a music festival.”

In “semi-primitive” areas, the maximum number of groups would be limited to the number of legal campsites: 20 groups at Conundrum, 11 at Crater Lake, for example.

Credit Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service
Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service
The U.S. Forest Service has created 30 different camping zones with maximum numbers of overnight groups. The wilderness is divided into semi-primitive, primitive, and pristine areas.

“Basically what we’re saying is that our inventoried campsites really reflect what the landscape can withstand right now,” Hopkins said.

In “primitive” areas, the number of groups are further limited to preserve some solitude. In these areas, like East Maroon and Lower Avalanche Creek, the Forest Service allows for use of 75 percent of available campsites at one time.
Areas where campers should expect real isolation are labeled “pristine.” The Forest Service doesn’t maintain trails in these places.  

“They’re really the hard to get to, the backcountry, the steep slopes, the peaks,” Hopkins said. “So they’re the rough and rugged backcountry that not many people get to, to be honest.”

And the Forest Service wants to be careful to preserve that, to be sure that all those backpackers who might not get the permit to go to Conundrum, don’t start flooding into other areas.  

“As we implement one corridor, if a lot of those users get displaced into an adjacent drainage or they decide to make the next best place in another area, we want to be able to monitor for that, and make sure that we’re not just pushing the problem to another area,” Hopkins said.  

This is why the plan is for about 200,000 acres across the entire wilderness and not just those semi-primitive places that are getting loved to death. Based on the comments received so far, the public seems to agree. But some say it doesn’t go far enough because it does not take day use into account.

Ian Billick works at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, just outside of Crested Butte. He sees thousands of people making the trek through the Maroon Bells Wilderness from Aspen to Crested Butte or vice versa.

“Mainly what you see is a lot of human feces,” Billick said. “If you go to the trailhead here on the Crested Butte side, pretty much every tree and bush has got toilet paper and human waste.”

The hike is not often an overnight, but it does take 4 to 8 hours, which is long enough to cause real resource damage. Billick is hoping the Forest Service expands the plan to consider day use — or at least bathrooms on the Crested Butte side of West Maroon.

Aspen native Elizabeth Stewart-Severy is excited to be making a return to both the Red Brick, where she attended kindergarten, and the field of journalism. She has spent her entire life playing in the mountains and rivers around Aspen, and is thrilled to be reporting about all things environmental in this special place. She attended the University of Colorado with a Boettcher Scholarship, and graduated as the top student from the School of Journalism in 2006. Her lifelong love of hockey lead to a stint working for the Colorado Avalanche, and she still plays in local leagues and coaches the Aspen Junior Hockey U-19 girls.
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