Call of wild draws crowd to WRNF

Federal officials probably don’t know whether to shout it from one of the White River National Forest’s mountaintops or whisper it in one of the forest’s many caves.

The WRNF is now the most-visited of any national park or forest in the country, the Forest Service reports. It’s news that speaks both to the natural wonders of the WRNF, and the challenges of keeping the forest in a natural state amidst the press of fast-increasing visitation.

With more than 10 million visitors last year, the WRNF is a bigger attraction than even the Statue of Liberty or Grand Canyon.

That statistic needs some perspective, however. The WRNF is not a single tourism site, but one spread over 2.27 million acres, including 12 ski areas. And more than 70 percent of the forest use is limited to those ski areas, some of which boast worldwide reputations.

Still, visitation outside ski areas is having its impacts. More than 100,000 people head up the trail to Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon every year. That makes it a major nonskiing attraction in the WRNF, and hardly a place to go if you’re seeking some backcountry solitude.

Indeed, heavy use of certain attractions in the WRNF has reached the point where the Forest Service had little choice but to institute a mandatory permit system this year. At places such as the Maroon Bells and Mount of the Holy Cross, the agency is requiring people to fill out and carry a free permit, in a better attempt to get a handle on just how bad the crowding problem is in these areas.

At the extreme, this program could expand to include outright limits on how many people can visit such areas at any one time. Officials hope, however, that once they are armed with better information they can take less drastic measures to manage crowds without turning people away.

For example, making a loop trail one-way can go far to make it feel less overrun with other people. And encouraging visitation to the many little-visited parts of the forest can help disperse use.

As officials deal with the challenge of managing such an appealing forest, it bears keeping in mind that a full 40 percent of use is not by tourists from elsewhere, but by residents of nearby communities. Some management measures may have to target those who use the forest as their regular route for walking the dog or getting in their after-work mountain bike exercise.

Hopefully, locals better appreciate the value of protecting the forest – as an economic asset, a wildlife haven, and an attraction that still offers many places where they can get away from crowds rather than rub shoulders with them.

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