Analysis details benefits of Hanging Lake management plan | PostIndependent.com

Analysis details benefits of Hanging Lake management plan

Hanging Lake doesn't draw as many visitors in the winter, but its peak-season crowds have grown significantly during recent years.
Carla Jean Whitley / Post Independent |

Limiting the popular Hanging Lake area to 615 visitors per day and instituting a peak-season shuttle would preserve the fragile ecosystem, according to a draft Environmental Assessment released by the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday.

The analysis is the next step before implementing the proposed Hanging Lake management plan, which forest officials hope to do by next summer.

Before that happens, there’s a final 30-day public comment period starting today and continuing through Jan. 22. After that, a final decision will be released.

“The EA looks at what the environmental effects would be if we were to implement the plan,” said Marcia Gilles, deputy district ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross District of the White River National Forest. “It reflects the benefits to the environment that would come if we implement this plan.”

The proposed management plan, put forth in August, calls for a permit-only, 615-visitor-per-day cap year-round. It also establishes a fee-based, reservation-system shuttle service to be implemented during the peak time of year from May through October.

Visitors could drive to the Hanging Lake trailhead, located just off I-70, from November through April, but would still need to obtain a permit. Under the plan, the area could also be accessed year-round by bicycle or on foot via the Glenwood Canyon bike path, but those hiking up to Hanging Lake would still need a permit.

Release of the EA comes as Hanging Lake saw another record number of visitors this year on the trail and at the cliff-side lake feature.

“In 2017, we saw 184,000 visitors at Hanging Lake, which is a 23 percent increase in only one year,” said District Ranger Aaron Mayville. “This data further underscores the importance of the long-term management solution, and I’m happy we’re making good progress with this Environmental Assessment.”

Increased visitation this year has been attributed to the rising popularity of the site. A warm spring followed by an unseasonably warm and dry fall allowed for more shoulder-season trail use than in previous years.

Forest officials, working with the city of Glenwood Springs, the Colorado Department of Transportation and other interested parties, have been studying ways to better manage Hanging Lake in the face of increasing crowds.

The trail sees upwards of 1,000 hikers per day during the busy summer season, which in the past has resulted in overcrowding and illegal parking at the main parking lot.

In recent years, extra rangers have been on hand during the busier months to patrol the area, and motorists are turned away when a certain number of vehicles are waiting in the parking queue.

The proposed management plan seeks to protect the natural resources and fragile ecosystem of the lake and the heavily used, mile-and-a-half-long trail that provides access to the area.

The 26-page analysis concludes that, by limiting the number of daily visitors, it would benefit the ecology of the area by limiting soil compaction, improving soil health, plant viability, stream health and wildlife habit.

Additionally, the proposal finds that visitor experience and safety would improve due to reduced crowding and congestion, Mayville explained.

“Implementation of the proposed plan would also allow for greater capacity to provide interpretive and educational programming, further enhancing visitor experiences,” the release states.

Initial public feedback gathered in August and September found that the majority of people are supportive of the proposed management plan. Those who commented also are interested in providing suggestions for the implementation of the transportation service and the reservation system.

Specific details, such as cost and how to obtain a permit and make a reservation, are to be determined once a transportation service provider is selected, as recommended in the plan.

Some who commented on the plan expressed concerns that the cap could negatively impact tourism in the area by turning people away who aren’t able to obtain a permit.

“Visitation during the summer months currently average from 714 to 1,013 hikers per day,” the EA acknowledges. “This reduction may translate to a decline in recreation spending in the local area. Potentially, some hopeful visitors may not be able/willing to secure a permit or utilize the transportation system at a day and time of their choosing.”

If those potential visitors choose not to make the trip to Garfield or Eagle County as a result, it would result in lost recreation spending.

However, “if those displaced Hanging Lake visitors still decide to make a trip … for other recreation activities at a different day and time, then tourism expenditures may be retained,” the EA also points out.

The Forest Service will use what’s called an “adaptive management strategy” to monitor the effects of the plan implementation and make any necessary changes as deemed appropriate.

The full Hanging Lake EA, proposed management plan and related documents can be found online at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=50479.

Written comments can be submitted via mail to Aaron Mayville c/o Paula Peterson, P.O. Box 190, Minturn, CO 81645, fax 970-827-9343, or electronically at https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public//CommentInput?Project=50479.