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50 Years of Wilderness: The State Of Wild Places Today

Jul 18, 2014

Forest Service staff hikes through the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness. The area is seeing more visitors, especially at four "hot spots."
Credit United States Forest Service

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and the challenges facing wild places today are different than they were in 1964. Some say it’s increasingly difficult to keep these areas wild and to get protection for new wilderness. The White River National Forest manages eight wilderness areas, including the popular Maroon Bells/Snowmass region near Aspen. In part two of our series, Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen examines the challenges facing the wilderness in our backyard.

It’s a clear, sunny morning as bus driver John Pennington collects tickets near his rig. Today he’s taking a group of tourists up to the Maroon Bells Scenic Area.

"We’re not full, so we can’t take off until we’re full, or until its time. So, I’m going to get ready to go and I’ll give you some instructions when I get up in the chair. And, it looks like a pretty good group," he says to the group.

Pennington is a retired science teacher. On the bus ride up, his explanation is part history, part geology.

"There’s the false summit. And, in three seconds time, on the right, there is North Maroon peak and just to the left of it is Maroon Peak. They are both over 14-thousand feet in elevation."

The group gets off the bus, some heading to an iconic spot overlooking Maroon Lake with the majestic peaks, the Bells, as a backdrop. It’s one of the most photographed spots in the state. Lynette Marcus is here from Seattle with her 8-year-old son, Noah.

The Maroon Bells Scenic Area is a popular tourist destination. The peaks called the Maroon Bells are some of the most photographed mountains in Colorado.
Credit Marci Krivonen

Lynette: "I see the Bells. I think they’re spectacular."

Noah: “I kinda see the Bells. They’re covered by some snow. I thought it was going to be like a bell, bell!"

Nearby, Steve Pedersen from Des Moines, Iowa has his camera out.

"That’s just the best picture you could imagine. I mean it’s such a photogenic spot. The two Bells and the colors that come off of the sun, and the reflections, it’s great."

Martha Moran manages wilderness, trails and visitor information for the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness. She says, "Wilderness value is about solitude and having that quiet spot."

The 1964 Wilderness Act describes wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man and where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

As visitors flock to these wild places, Moran says their ecological integrity is being compromised.

"When you consider that 1964 Wilderness Act, and supporting this area as a resource that people love, but it’s really key that we ensure the effects of these human activities do not dominate the natural conditions."

Not far from the Maroon Bells is Conundrum Hot Springs, also in the wilderness area. Here, visitors are loving the place to death. Three thousand people each summer hike several miles to the springs, and leave their garbage along the way.

"There’s toilet paper, bullet shells, clothing, towels, food, knives, fireworks, light bulbs - that’s some of the stuff the rangers just pulled out."

It’s one of four hot spots that see high visitation every summer and the numbers are growing.

"We’re seeing record numbers of use levels, whether it’s up Maroon Bells scenic area, our wilderness trails, our campgrounds are even real full," says Moran.

Hikers head up Buckskin Pass in the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness.
Credit United States Forest Service

Even the buses - operated by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority - are gaining popularity. It’s a fine balance because the Forest Service wants people to be excited about wilderness but, Moran says, respect for nature must be part of the equation.

"I mean, this is wilderness! How can we educate people so they understand that congress set this area aside and where man’s impact should not be present. And so, that’s one of our biggest challenges."

She says the Forest Service may consider new rules in the future, like reservation-only camping at Conundrum.

Population growth and heavy use is a challenge for all of the nation’s 700-plus wilderness areas. But, Scott Miller with the Wilderness Society says wilderness is more important than ever because people need to unplug.

"I think as populations grow and the West becomes more urbanized, folks really desire the solitude and natural surroundings of wilderness more than ever."

He says more wilderness designations are needed to satisfy the growing number of people. Right now more than two dozen bills are stalled in congress that aim to add to the nation’s Wilderness Preservation System. Three would bring protections to areas in Colorado. Still, Miller says the pool of potential wilderness is shrinking.

"If you look at the areas folks were trying to protect 50 years ago, some of those areas have been protected and many have been whittled down, so I’m afraid that will continue to happen. That’s why efforts to protect what we have left are important. The fact is there are significant wild places left, and it’s important to protect those," he says.

Back at the Maroon Bells Scenic area, Hays and Jackie Busch are celebrating 70 years of marriage. They live in Denver.

"When we first moved to Colorado we wanted to go to all the resorts on our anniversary and Aspen was the first one. And we haven’t been since, and it doesn’t look like the same place (laughs)."

Still, they say the view is unmatched. The couple slowly heads back to the bus, enjoying their last moments of solitude in one of the most visited wilderness areas in Colorado.