Tight timeline to implement Hanging Lake plan
Key questions around the newly proposed Hanging Lake management plan that are not specifically addressed in the plan itself have to do with the details of a reservation, permit fee and mandatory peak-season shuttle system that are central to preserving the area’s unique qualities.
Whether those details can be worked out in time to have the plan implemented by next summer, following an expected final decision by the U.S. Forest Service sometime this coming winter, remains to be seen.
“It is a very ambitious time line,” Aaron Mayville, chief ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross District of the White River National Forest, said during an open house in Glenwood Springs on Wednesday evening to discuss the plan and take public comments.
“Something unforeseen could happen that may bump the implementation down road a little bit,” he said. “That just means we have another month or two, or maybe even another season of challenging management out there.”
Ideally, though, the Forest Service will get to a point before spring 2018 hits to put the proposed shuttle and permit reservation system out to competitive bids.
That process would be open to private outfitters, as well as public entities, such as the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority or the city of Glenwood Springs, to propose a plan of operation, Mayville said.
“We will have certain selection criteria to be able to weigh those proposals and choose a provider,” he said.
What’s certain for Hanging Lake visitors, if the plan is ultimately adopted, is that the spontaneity of driving by on Interstate 70 or getting up in the morning and deciding to make the hike up to the popular destination will be taken out of the equation.
“For most people who want to visit Hanging Lake, it’s going to require some pre-planning through the use of a reservation system,” Mayville said.
The Forest Service last week formally released its long-awaited draft management plan for the popular area that has seen annual visitation spike from 99,000 in 2014 to 150,000 last year.
The plan sets a limit of 615 daily visitors to the Hanging Lake area, located off I-70 in Glenwood Canyon. That’s a 40 percent reduction from the typical peak summer day visitation of 1,100 people, but only a 22 percent reduction in annual visitation.
To manage that number, the plan relies on a fee-based reservation, permit and mandatory shuttle system during the peak season, May 1-Oct. 31. Permits would still be required during the off-peak season, from Nov. 1 to April 30, but visitors would be allowed to drive to the trailhead then.
Bicycle or foot access to Hanging Lake via the Glenwood Canyon Bike Path would be allowed while the shuttle is in effect, but anyone hiking the trail would still need to make a reservation and show a permit. Those not taking the shuttle would likely pay a reduced fee, Mayville said.
“Whether we use a wrist band, or something on the phone, or a piece of paper … those are the details that need to be worked out,” he said.
The proposal is subject to an initial 30-day public comment period through Sept. 21, followed by more opportunity for comment this fall and an anticipated final decision over the winter. The Forest Services hopes to have the plan implemented by May 2018.
The agency has been grappling with how to handle increasing crowds at Hanging Lake and on the steep, rugged 1.2-mile access trail.
Overcrowding had led to trail damage, as well as damage to the sensitive travertine lake ecosystem, and illegal overflow parking at the trailhead parking lot that doubles as an I-70 rest area managed by the Colorado Department of Transportation.
The plan calls for CDOT to lease the parking lot to the Forest Service indefinitely and for its safety rest area status to be removed.
Forest planners, working with a variety of area stakeholders and a private consultant, wrestled with a daily visitor cap ranging from 450 to 780. Setting the cap at 615 visitors per day is considered a “resource-conscious” decision.
At the same time, the plan recognizes that Hanging Lake is an important economic resource for Glenwood Springs and surrounding communities, Mayville said.
Recent surveys of visitors found that 58 percent are from elsewhere in Colorado, with a sizable percentage of national and international visitors. The typical visitor spends more than $800 locally, when taking in lodging, food, gasoline, recreation fees at other area destinations, and other local spending, according to those surveys.
The Wednesday open house was lightly attended, drawing only about a dozen members of the general public. Those who did show up were generally supportive of the proposed management plan.
“It’s a precious resource, and we cannot allow it to be damaged any further,” said one Glenwood Springs resident, who gave only her first name of Kathy.
“I think they are on the right track in limiting the number of people, and making it only by permit,” she said.
Natalie Tsevdos, who has lived in Glenwood Springs for two years and makes it to Hanging Lake a couple of times a year, agreed.
“I do want to see it protected, so that future generations can enjoy it, too,” she said, adding she tries to make the trek up to Hanging Lake during the off-peak times when there are fewer people.
Mayville said that whatever reservation system is used, visitors will pay a single fee.
“We want it to be accessible to people and be something they can figure out easily, so they can enjoy Hanging Lake,” he said.
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Cleaning up isn’t cheap — that much is clear following estimates it would take $200,000 to clean up all of the roughly 80 homeless encampments in Glenwood Springs.