‘We can’t keep advertising our best places’
CARBONDALE — When attendees of Wednesday’s “Naturalist Night” presentation were asked whether they would support a limited use permit system for Conundrum Hot Springs or Four Pass Loop, the answer was, overwhelmingly, yes.
More than 50 people came to the Third Street Center to hear Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer’s presentation, and at least half of them stayed to give feedback. Even the most cautious respondents agreed that something must be done to prevent the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area from being loved to death.
“Every office has a picture of Maroon Bells in it whether they know where it is or not,” former Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris observed. “We can’t keep advertising our best places.”
The Bells alone see more traffic than some national parks, occasionally surpassing 1,000 visitors a day in peak season. In 2013, 12,338 groups stayed overnight in 181,535 acres of land set aside as a place where “man himself is a visitor and does not remain,” up from 10,179 in 2012.
There are consequences. In 2014, 11 campsites were shut down due after improperly stored food attracted bears, and 21 rescues brought in a helicopter or ATV where motorized traffic is otherwise banned. Meanwhile, rangers hauled out 586 pounds of trash and buried 175 piles of human waste. The lack of leave-no-trace ethics was most pronounced at Conundrum Hot Springs and Four Pass Loop, with Thomas Lakes at the base of Sopris a distant third.
The difference, Schroyer said, is that Thomas Lakes doesn’t make it into magazines every summer. According to data from self-registration forms, less than 5 percent of overnight users at Conundrum are from the Roaring Fork Valley.
“Places that get a lot of publicity — like Hanging Lake, Crater Lake, Conundrum Hot Springs — are what we’re seeing a lot of overcrowding in,” observed Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, in an interview before the event.
And while Hanging Lake draws more visitors during the summer than the parking lot can accommodate, most aren’t staying the night.
“We don’t get a lot of resource damage with our day users,” Schroyer said.
Still, the crowds themselves can undermine the experience.
“The Wilderness Act is pretty specific about what the wilderness experience is supposed to be like and the opportunities it’s supposed to provide for solitude, quiet and self-challenge,” Shoemaker said.
Although the definition of solitude varies based on personal experience, the Forest Service regards encountering more than 20 groups of people in a day as disruptive to the wilderness experience. On the Four Pass Loop, a well-publicized and highly scenic backpacking route that begins and ends at the Bells, the observed rate is more than twice that.
Roz Turnbull, a local rancher and member of the Perry family, who own land adjacent to the wilderness area, recalled a time when they had true solitude.
“It used to be, if my dad ran into anyone on the trails up there, he’d turn around and go home,” she said. “If I went up to Conundrum now, I don’t think I could stand it. Five generations have been able to enjoy it, but you can see that the that the sixth generation won’t be able to enjoy it without some limitation.”
According to Schroyer, numerous policies are already in place to limit impacts by reducing group sizes, restricting campsites, and increasing ranger and volunteer presence. Only two of the tools in her belt haven’t been used: limiting length of stay or limiting permits altogether.
The latter poses challenges.
More restrictions could push visitors to adjacent areas or discourage them from visiting altogether.
“For some people who come here, it may be their only experience of wilderness. You don’t want to prevent them from going out there,” Shoemaker said. “It’s incredibly important for people to understand just what is at stake. If people aren’t getting out there and experiencing it, we might just lose it altogether.”
SUPPORT FOR FEES?
There’s also the matter of cost.
“It’s not going to work without a fee. We won’t get any money from Washington to support this effort,” Schroyer said. “I don’t know if the users for this wilderness are ready for that.”
The crowd seemed to disagree. Even on the more open ended question, “What are the potential solutions to the high use issues?” several respondents favored restricting permits. Another suggested limiting publicity and advertising for the area, and someone else proposed giving out prizes for folks who pick up and pack out trash.
Several responses to the query, “What management changes are you not willing to consider?” indicated that nothing should be off the table, and some indicated that no action would be the worse tactic.
Schroyer welcomed the input, but isn’t making any promises about immediate action.
“We’re not in the middle of any formal process here,” she said. “We’re just sensing, educating and doing outreach.”
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