Garbage, waste and illegal fires a constant problem in Aspen-area wilderness

Wilderness rangers deal with surge of visitors in the backcountry

A U.S. Forest Service worker descends a portion of the Four Pass Loop, a popular 26-mile loop for backpackers and hikers. (U.S. Forest Service/courtesy photo)

Some hikers and backpackers have an odd way of showing their appreciation for wilderness lands.

Garbage, human waste and illegal fire rings were among the problems that wilderness rangers for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District encountered last summer, according to the 2021 Wilderness Program Report.

A seasonal crew of four packed out 154 pounds of trash, buried 159 piles of human waste and rehabbed 157 illegal fire rings last summer. They also reported six incidents of wilderness campers cutting live trees. Owners of dogs were cited or warned 91 times about Fido or Fluffy being off-leash. Forty-eight individuals or groups were contacted about improper food storage. Food and garbage must be stored in bear-proof containers.

All told, rangers reported 513 “incidents” last summer. That was down from 915 the summer before. There was a well-documented surge in the number of people visiting the great outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We definitely saw more incidents across the district in 2020,” said Shelly Grail, recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. “2021 felt more ‘normal’ with our usage and visitation than 2020. It makes sense to me that the incidents are back to trending down now that we’re past the huge spike in visitation from 2020.”

The rangers focus on patrolling the 181,535-acre Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, home to some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. The Four Pass Loop is on the bucket list of nearly every backpacker interested in the West. Capitol Lake and Conundrum Hot Springs are among the other main attractions.

Designated wilderness areas prohibit motorized and mechanized uses. In addition to Maroon Bells-Snowmass, the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District includes portions of the Hunter-Fryingpan, Holy Cross, Collegiate Peaks and Raggeds wilderness area.

“The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness leads in visitation, incidents and in trash packed out,” the wilderness report said.

The highest number of annual incidents was 1,569 in 2015. The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District adopted a requirement that summer for backpackers to store food and garbage in bear-proof containers that year. The new regulation caught many people off guard, so the Forest Service stepped up enforcement.

The average number of incidents between 2011 and 2021 was 823 per year.

Another reason for a general decline in incidents in recent years — with the exception of 2020 — is changing conditions at Conundrum Hot Springs. The Forest Service implemented a permit and reservation system for the upper Conundrum Valley three years ago. New rules limited camping to designated spots, which meant fewer campers and smaller parties at the popular destination.

“We spent a significant amount of our time at Conundrum before the permit was implemented due to the party atmosphere that existed up there,” Grail said. “Thankfully, that has settled down in the recent past. We still patrol Conundrum regularly but don’t find that we’re hauling out the piles of garbage and dealing with the intense amounts of human waste that we once were.”

The number of incidents logged by wilderness rangers also varies from year to year due to size of the staff and by the whims of Mother Nature. In the past, there were consistently six people on the crew. In recent years there have been four.

In some seasons, the wilderness rangers are more intensely involved in clearing downed trees from avalanches and windstorms.

“In September 2020, a massive storm blew down hundreds if not thousands of trees in the watershed of the Upper Fryingpan River,” the wilderness report for 2021 said. “Rangers cleared the Fryingpan Lakes Trail and most of the Savage Lakes Trail and worked on several others that were affected by the blowdown.”

The windstorms and avalanches often deposit large tree trunks in large, tangled piles. Clearing operations are often hazardous, so crews must go slowly and be careful.

“The work puts even experienced sawyers to the test!” the wilderness report said.

Grail said the wilderness crew would likely remain the same size for 2022. The number of visitors could change. The White River National Forest is considering implementing a reservation, permit and fee system for the Four Pass Loop, Geneva Lake and upper Capitol Creek Valley as well as start charging a fee for Conundrum. The proposal is under review by the regional Forest Service office in Denver and must be approved by the Washington, D.C., headquarters.

Forest Service officials say the rules are needed because of resource damage and overcrowding that affects the wilderness experience.

The number of overnight visitors in that particular wilderness area quadrupled between 2006 and 2020, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Statistics weren’t immediately available for 2021 but the wilderness crew reported a “high number of public contacts and many new backcountry visitors.”

If approved, camping spots would be limited and there were be fewer visitors to the hotspots, but they might get pushed to other areas.

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