The U.S. Forest Service says a new permit system at Conundrum Hot Springs is working to help protect the ecosystem. For the first time, backpackers had to make a reservation to camp at the popular spot.
Katy Nelson, wilderness and trails program director for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said there's a noticeable difference at the hot springs.
“What I notice most is the cleanliness of the sites, the lack of poop, to be quite frank and candid,” she said.
Where in the past rangers have had to haul out loads of garbage and human feces, Nelson said now visitors are planning ahead and using the "wag bags" the Forest Service supplies at the trailhead for people to carry out their own poop.
The new system requires that backpackers book one of 18 available campsites online. Nelson said the sites have been booked consistently through the summer. Compared to past summers, this thins the crowd on weekends and means more campers during the week.
Because campers are now using designated campsites, Nelson said the Forest Service is able to work on repairing damage to the ecosystem from dispersed camping in the past. She added the agency has not seen increased use in other parts of the wilderness as a result of the permit system.
”People want to go to the hot springs; that's the experience they're seeking," Nelson said. "And if they don't get it, there's not a great place for them to be dispersed to."
But there is increased use of popular backcountry spots like the Four Pass Loop and Snowmass Lake, where the Forest Service is seeing many of the same impacts that affected Conundrum.
"The human waste issue, the food storage, just the sheer overcrowding, it's overwhelming," Nelson said of Snowmass Lake.
She said the Forest Service will continue to research what a permitting system in other overcrowded backcountry areas, like Snowmass Lake, would look like.