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Wilderness under siege

The U.S. Forest Service this summer will begin requiring mandatory permits in two of its most heavily use wilderness areas, near Vail and Aspen.

The pilot program comes as the Forest Service is considering how it can better minimize human impacts in the wilderness, including possibly by limiting total numbers of visitors in certain places.

The program will take place in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, south of Minturn, and the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness Area, southwest of Aspen.



Forest Service officials emphasize that no decision on visitation limits, also called quotas, has been made as of yet. For now, they want to use the mandatory permit system as a means of both better measuring visitation in the wilderness, and better educating the public on how to minimize their own impacts.

“The increase in use reflects the growth and development across the state of Colorado and demand for recreation on the White River National Forest,” said Beth Boyst, the White River National Forest’s wilderness specialist. “Data collection is one of the first steps in determining where problems exist. To resolve wilderness management issues, public involvement is key in determining how the wilderness areas should be managed.”



Forest Service trailheads currently have voluntary sign-in logs. These can help alert the agency of who is in the backcountry for emergency and rescue purposes, and also provide some indication of types and levels of visitation, for management purposes.

However, the logs are an inexact measure at best. Boyst estimates that only about a third of those who use trails sign the logs.

They won’t have a choice starting June 1 at Holy Cross and Maroon Bells-Snowmass.

Boyst said it’s uncertain how long the permits might be required, but a minimum of three to five years is expected. A year with lots of fire or rain could hinder usage, skewing the numbers and requiring more years of data gathering to obtain more reliable figures.

The pilot program’s results will be taken into consideration in determining whether to expand it to other high-use areas.

No quotas, yet

Mandatory registration is not new to Colorado’s national forests. A similar system can be found at the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area west of Boulder.

Boyst said no national forests in the state have quotas, however. That’s why the Forest Service is seeking a better understanding of what’s currently occurring at Holy Cross and Maroon Bells-Snowmass before considering implementation of quotas.

Quotas can be found in national forests in California, said Boyst. They also can be found in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and in the Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

River users have long faced quotas in places such as the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park and on other popular waterways in the Southwest.

Boyst said quotas are only one of many options available to the Forest Service for dealing with increasing human impacts.

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.

“Certainly the first two to three miles is usually most heavily impacted” on a trail, she said.

“We have a full range of management options,” said Boyst. “Certainly we would look at what’s the problem, where is the problem occurring and what’s the least impactive way to the public to resolve the problem, to protect their experience and the natural resource.”

Mitigation measures, including quotas, wouldn’t necessarily be imposed across an entire wilderness area.

It also might not always be the case that the most heavily used areas would be where quotas would be imposed, said Boyst.

Actions could be taken where areas are most heavily impacted, which doesn’t necessarily correspond with use, she said.

“Impacts are most significant when they’re first occurring,” she said.

The first five to 10 passes by a hiker can do the most damage to nonresilient vegetation, she said.

“That being said, certainly the challenge will be to figure out when is enough enough for those places that are fairly resistant from a physical standpoint but still we want to provide a wilderness experience for the recreationist.”

Backcountry boom

Certain areas, such as the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, have seen a significant increase in use, she said.

Part of the reason is that the area is home to the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the state’s most famous mountains due to its cross-like snowfield feature. It’s also a Fourteener, which makes it popular with those seeking to climb Colorado’s 50-plus peaks more than 14,000 feet in elevation.

A group called the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative has been working to build trails and reduce human impacts on the state’s more heavily visited Fourteeners. Boyst said the Forest Service plans to consult with that group as it considers how to manage traffic on Fourteeners. Several Fourteeners also can be found in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area.

Another trend corresponding with increasing traffic in wilderness areas is that much of the increase is in day use, not overnight use, Boyst said.

That appears linked to increasingly urban development near these areas. This results in people exercising and walking their dogs in wilderness areas once envisioned as places of solitude.

“We know that population (growth) and development have hugely impacted our wilderness areas across the state,” she said.

Cathy Kahlow, acting recreation and engineering director for the WRNF, said many people go to the wilderness in search of solitude. To see a lot of people takes away from that, she said.

Boyst said physical issues regarding forest management are easier to quantify and respond to. It’s hard to apply science to social issues, and more a matter of deciding what the public wants.

WRNF spokesman Vinnie Picard said he expects some members of the public will support the mandatory registration program and the goals behind it, while others will consider the information-gathering to be intrusive.

Boyst said the mandatory registration isn’t that different from the voluntary logs now in place.

“We’re just replacing them with a different kind of form,” she said.

She said rangers will monitor the wilderness to enforce the new system. Fines could eventually be levied against those who fail to register.

“We’re interested in educating people about the program first,” said Boyst.

For more information about the permits, contact Beth Boyst at (970) 827-5168 or bboyst@fs.fed.us.

How mandatory

registration will work:

One member of each party will be required to register at the trailhead and carry a copy of the registration with them during their visit.

There will be no fee for the permit, visitors will self-issue them, and for now, anyway, there will be no limit on permits per trailhead.

Local wilderness users who have multiple visits each week can either register at the trailhead or pick up a monthly permit at their local Forest Service office.

The permit will require information on the dates the trip starts and ends; the point of entry, destination and exit; the party leader’s name/organization and ZIP code, with the option of including their address as well; and the number of people, stock and dogs. There are also boxes to indicate use by outfitters, educational groups and clubs if appropriate.

Registrants also will be asked to list expected destinations/camp locations, and the number of nights they expect to spend at each one.

In addition, registrants will be asked why they chose to visit the particular wilderness area.

The back of the permit will list regulations pertaining to the wilderness, such as group size limits, dog restraint requirements, where camping is and isn’t allowed, and the fact that motorized and mechanized equipment is prohibited. In addition, the permit will urge visitors to practice the “Leave No Trace” wilderness ethic.

The permits will be required year-round.

– Dennis Webb

Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516

dwebb@postindependent.com


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