Permits required only for overnight trips
GSPI News Editor
Responding to concerns from the public, the U.S. Forest Service has scaled back a wilderness permit system in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Mandatory permits will be required only for overnight stays in certain parts of the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness. Permits no longer will be needed for daytime use.
“We’re making a few changes in response to our visitors and customers for this year,” said Martha Moran, a recreation and wilderness manager for the Aspen Ranger District.
Daytime use permits will still be required in the Holy Cross Wilderness in Eagle County, where the public proved more readily receptive to the permit program, first instituted in both wilderness areas last summer.
“Generally folks were really positive about it” at Holy Cross, said Beth Boyst, wilderness manager for the White River National Forest, based in Glenwood Springs.
The permits are free. They must be filled out and carried by someone from each party that enters the wilderness. Moran noted that the permits also make it easier to find backcountry campers in an emergency.
The Forest Service began requiring them of visitors in the two wilderness areas to get better information on use, so it could better manage the areas.
Generally, only about a third of visitors to the forest sign in at voluntary trailhead registers. By comparison, Boyst said the Forest Service did field checks and found that about 85 percent of visitors to the Holy Cross Wilderness Area complied with the permit requirement. That’s quite good for the program’s first year, she said.
Vandals’ motives unclear
About 74 percent of visitors complied in the Maroon Bell/Snowmass Area.
However, vandals struck boxes containing the permits at the Dinkle Lake trailhead to Mount Sopris, and at trailheads at Avalanche Creek and Capitol Lake. The vandals sprayed foam on the boxes, tore off lids and tossed permits on the ground.
The Forest Service doesn’t know the motives behind the vandalism but is aware that some forest visitors object to the idea of permits.
“There’s always the challenge that people think we’re going to limit their freedoms,” said Moran.
She said the agency wants to maximize freedom in the wilderness. But agency officials also are concerned about the impacts of heavy visitation, and say they need better information about the volume and nature of that use so they can take steps to reduce impacts.
In some cases, this eventually could result in outright limits on the numbers of permits issued, under a visitation quota system. But agency officials say there are many less-restrictive management measures that they would try first.
Some other options can include banning campfires, requiring use of designated campsites, or changing access to an area so people have to walk farther to get to a destination.
Keeping it simple
The Forest Service is seeking to be flexible on the permit system as well. Moran said the Aspen area gets a lot of day use visitors, and many of them were confused by the permit system.
“We want to keep the process as simple as possible for the visitors,” she said.
Day users will be counted through other means such as rangers and wilderness volunteers, and battery-powered, automated trail counters.
Boyst said visitors to the Holy Cross Wilderness were in a learning mode about the new permit system, but understood the Forest Service’s goal of getting good use numbers.
The Forest Service tried to make the permit system easy for frequent use by locals by offering a monthly pass. But Moran said no one took advantage of that offer in the Aspen area.
The permit program did yield some numbers of value to the Forest Service. Moran said the agency recorded visitation by about 5,200 people on the Aspen side of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area last year.
Fines to be phased in
The Forest Service has taken a low-key approach to trying to get compliance with the overnight camping permit program. Last year, no one was ticketed or fined for failing to have permits; instead, the focus was on education.
This year, fines will be phased in, but levied only against those who knowingly don’t comply with the regulations.
The permits are required under a special order from WRNF supervisor Martha Ketelle. Penalties for violating the permit requirements can range up to $5,000 and six months in jail. However, the fine for a first offense is usually $75, Boyst said.
At this point, the Forest Service doesn’t intend to make the program permanent. Boyst hopes to be done with the program in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area within a year or two, depending on the level of compliance and whether bad weather skews the data, requiring more data to be collected.
“It’s incredibly time-consumptive for my staff,” Boyst said. “And so we will do the minimum to get good numbers and then we’ll move on.”
“We’re hopeful if we do a good job of it in this round then we can be done for a decade,” she said.
A tradeoff of conducting the program is that forest staff has had to back off on monitoring of campsites, Boyst said.
Ralph Swain, wilderness program manager for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region, sees value in having the permit system in place long-term, in order to identify use trends and better manage wilderness.
But Moran notes that even without the permit system, data has been collected at Maroon Bells-Snowmass for a long time, going back to the early 1980s.
Permits employed elsewhere
The Fores Service is also using a permit system in the Black Elk Wilderness in South Dakota, and the Cloud Peak Wilderness in Wyoming is beginning its 10th year of mandatory permits.
Last year a special order was issued allowing violation notices to be written at Cloud Peak, but so far none have been issued, said Swain.
“People want to comply once they understand the intent,” he said.
But Cloud Peak has a lot of local use, so it’s easier to educate users there, said Swain.
He said the vandalism in Colorado was disappointing in the sense that he thinks if people understood the purpose of the permits, it wouldn’t have happened.
At the Indian Peaks Wilderness, public support for permits has been widespread. In fact, that area has had an outright quota system in place for overnight camping since the 1970s, at the request of grassroots organizations worried about heavy use, Swain said.
He hopes to see the prermit program expanded elsewhere.
“There’s definitely other wilderness areas that receive high use and we have a desire to get more accurate information about how many users are coming into the areas,” he said.
Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516
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