Plan lays groundwork for permit system at Conundrum hot springs |

Plan lays groundwork for permit system at Conundrum hot springs

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Wilderness ranger Eric Tierney scatters leaves and twigs on the remnants of an illegal campfire at Snowmass Lake in July. He threw the charred logs and ash into the forest so other campers wouldn't think the fire was allowed.
Aspen Times file photo |


To learn more about Leave No Trace principles, go to

The U.S. Forest Service is laying the foundation for what could eventually result in a reservation and permit system for overnight users of Conundrum Valley and the Four Pass Loop.

The White River National Forest staff is working on a draft Overnight Visitors Use Management Plan that will establish capacity standards for the 181,535-acre Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness. The plan will also document current levels of use and resulting ecological damage.

The study was triggered by illegal camping, improperly buried human waste and other violations of the Leave No Trace principles occurring in places such as the Conundrum Hot Springs, Snowmass Lake and Fravert Basin. The latter two locations are popular stops on the 27-mile Four Pass Loop, a popular backpacking route.

Andrew Larson, lead wilderness ranger in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, and his staff are tracking a variety of metrics including overnight users in specific areas or zones, campsite impacts and trailer encounters.

“High use has become overuse and abuse.”Ralph Swainregional wilderness program manager

The goal is to come up with an adaptive management plan that gives rangers tools to implement when overuse occurs, Larson said.

“Our current priority is Conundrum Valley because it exceeds all of our management standards to a high degree,” he said.

Ground breaking in region

Ralph Swain, wilderness program ranger in the Rocky Mountain Region for the Forest Service, said a team of Forest Service officials, representatives of conservation groups and user groups convened in 2006 and 2007 to identify “popular magnet” areas in Colorado’s wilderness area and explore options for management. They identified seven “areas of concern,” including Conundrum Valley in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

The team recommended collecting use numbers and resource damage. “At the time there was a feeling of not recommending a permit system,” Swain said.

The only permit system for overnight use on Forest Service land in Colorado is in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, popular because it is adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park. Swain thought the permit system was established in the 1980s.

“There’s no permit system for day use,” he said.

Since that committee convened a decade ago, recreational use has continued to soar in certain wilderness areas.

“We’re reaching capacity issues. High use has become overuse and abuse,” Swain said.

Many camp locations are “denuded to mineral soil,” he said. There’s litter, “hacking on trees” for firewood, improperly buried human waste and, in Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, improperly stored food and garbage accessible to bears, according to Swain.

Permits required in other areas

The Forest Service has established a quota permit system in roughly 20 areas in the U.S., including the Boundary Waters in Minnesota and Mount Whitney in California, he noted. The White River National Forest could be establishing a model for future use quotas in Colorado.

The White River staff has done a good job of tracking use and resource damage. That data establishes what resource damage will result if use trends continue, he said. The issue is, the land isn’t being protected for future generations as Congress intended when establishing the first wilderness areas in 1964, Swain said.

The draft management plan is scheduled to be released early this fall and will include options for the Forest Service to pursue. Then the agency will start the official environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. That review will begin by seeking public comment on the draft plan.

The comments will be analyzed and addressed when a decision is released sometime in 2017, possibly in the spring. “A lot of it will depend on the amount of interest and the comments we get,” said Kay Hopkins, outdoor recreation planner for the White River National Forest.

Conundrum experiment

The Overnight Visitors Use Management Plan won’t authorize a permit and fee system. Hopkins said there is no assumption it will even recommend that direction.

However, if the plan does point to the need for a permit system, the Forest Service would need to go through additional administrative steps, Hopkins said.

Larson said the Forest Service has applied all management tools at its disposal at Conundrum Hot Springs — designating campsites, prohibiting fires on certain areas and urging use of bags for waste. Resource damage is still occurring. A permit system is the only tool remaining.

“We’re still shooting for next summer. More realistically it will be summer 2018,” Larson said. “If it moves forward, we would experiment with it for a couple of years.”

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