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New Fee Proposed For Camping In Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Aims To Curb Influx Of People

Backpackers enjoy a soak in Aspen’s Conundrum Hot Springs after an 8-mile hike into the popular campsite. The influx of campers in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is causing the U.S. Forest Service to propose a new overnight permitting system to better manage crowds.
Courtesy of Aspen Public Radio
Backpackers enjoy a soak in Aspen’s Conundrum Hot Springs after an 8-mile hike into the popular campsite. The influx of backpackers in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is causing the U.S. Forest Service to expand its overnight permitting system and propose a new camping fee to better manage crowds.

Longtime locals may have noticed an influx of people on the hiking trails around Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley this summer. In the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, where use has nearly quadrupled in the last 10 years, the U.S. Forest Service is expanding its permit system and proposing a new fee for overnight camping at several popular sites in the area.

“We’re seeing everything from large-scale campsite impacts, you know, impacted vegetation, that's trees being cut down and burned. You know, problems with human waste, AKA poop and human-bear interactions,” said Katy Nelson, Wilderness and Trails Specialist for the White River National Forest.

What’s New About The Permits?

In 2017, the Forest Service approved a proposal to allow for permits to be required for overnight camping anywhere in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area. For the last several years campers have only needed to reserve a permit ahead of time for the popular backpacking and natural hot springs spot Conundrum. The permits have always been free, albeit with a $6.00 processing fee.

Now they’re expanding the permit system to also include the Four-Pass Loop, Geneva Lake and Capitol Lake. They’re also proposing a new fee for those permits. Under the new fee proposal, campers would need to pay a $12.00 fee per person, per night during peak season. Most of the money would go back into protecting these areas.

According to Nelson, the idea isn’t to discourage people from visiting wild places.

“In Conundrum we actually are able to accommodate more people now than we did historically,” said Nelson.

Nelson said that’s because they’re able to spread out the number of people who can camp at each site throughout the year so that local ecosystems don’t get over-stressed on any single weekend.

“People fought really hard to protect that space in perpetuity and we were seeing the deterioration of the conditions back there,” Nelson said. “So ‘the why’ behind all of this is to just do a better job of long-term stewardship while still providing opportunities for people to visit, because they love the place.”

How “The Belles” Made History

Nelson credits a trio of legendary Aspen women -- Joy Caudill, Connie Harvey and Dottie Fox, “The three Belles” -- with leading the charge to expand the iconic wilderness area after the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964.

As part of their initiative, the trio founded an environmental advocacy group, which still exists today, known as the “Wilderness Workshop.” The workshop’s communications director is Grant Stevens.

“Staff decades before myself worked really hard to get the wilderness area expanded in 1980,” he said. “It's about 180,000 acres now.”

So far, the environmental advocacy group says they support the overall sentiment behind the new fee proposal.

“We definitely support the White River National Forest’s thoughtful planning for protecting this iconic place,” Stevens said. “Managing the impacts of increasing recreation on our public lands is really challenging and we're really glad to see the forest service engaging the public around this.”

Fee Brings Up Equity Concerns

Wilderness Workshop and their Latino-led partner program Defiende Nuestra Tierra do have concerns that some aspects of the fee proposal might further exclude people who already face barriers like the price of outdoor gear and having the time to experience and enjoy wilderness.

“I think we're pretty concerned that fee systems on public lands contribute to long-standing inequities in terms of who benefits from wilderness areas,” said Stevens. “And those are definitely inequities that we’re committed to addressing and helping to overcome.”

Both Wilderness Workshop and the Forest Service plan to work with local residents, especially Latinos, communities of color and those with lower incomes in the Roaring Fork Valley and visitors to make the permits more equitable. Nelson and Stevens said they’ll also be looking at similar programs across the country to see what they’ve done to make sure no one is left out.

The Forest Service is accepting public comments on the fee proposal until September 15, 2021. If the new $12.00 fee is approved, permits would still be available on Recreation.gov, which currently charges an additional processing fee of $6.00. For more information or to leave a comment about the proposal, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/whiteriver.

Correction: an earlier version of this article misstated that a new permit system, rather than a new fee for an already-existing permit system, was being proposed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and "Morning Edition" anchor. She has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, creative efforts to solve the valley's affordable housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.
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