Guest Opinion: Visitor behavior is a real threat to Hanging Lake
The story of Hanging Lake over the past century is centered on the visual splendor of the beautiful blue travertine lake perched among dramatic cliff walls, but it is also one of local land managers striving to stem the tide of increased visitation and the corresponding resource damage.
Official numbers for 2015 are still being calculated, but we are expecting Hanging Lake to see nearly twice as many people as it did last year — upward of 130,000 visitors. Such a high-use recreation area needs a specialized management solution, and the Forest Service, along with several key partners, is working toward creating one.
While that solution is being developed, we’re trying to educate people about the importance of responsible recreation at Hanging Lake. Not doing so may permanently damage a beautiful, and popular, natural wonder.
COMPLEX MANAGEMENT CHALLENGE
Today, the management challenges and resource damage associated with increased visitation have reached a point that trail and infrastructure improvements alone will no longer be sufficient. Parking lot capacity has been greatly exceeded. On weekends in the summer months, enough cars are in the lot waiting for open spots that traffic will back up out of the lot, over the off ramp and onto the highway itself.
It is not uncommon to witness arguments, illegal parking and hot tempers as visitors spent hours in the car traveling and then struggle trying to find a place to park their vehicles.
While management challenges at the site are most immediately apparent in the parking lot, they are even more concerning at the lake itself. Part of the issue is certainly the capacity of the trail and boardwalk to effectively manage the sheer number of visitors, but visitor behavior has proven to be the real threat to the lake and surrounding ecosystem.
Travertine — a limestone-derived mineral deposit that takes thousands of years to form — can be easily destroyed by direct human interaction, like touching or prodding. Even the oils from skin can degrade the natural formation of the mineral. It’s for these reasons that the Forest Service has prohibited swimming in the lake, roped off restoration areas and generally tried to curb destructive behavior.
Clearly, most visitors to Hanging Lake follow the rules; however, a large number don’t, and they are threatening the existence of the very attraction that they are coming to see.
SO, WHAT TO DO?
Two years ago, the Forest Service enlisted the assistance of the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, a U.S. Department of Transportation think tank that specializes in navigating these types of challenges. With Volpe’s help, the Forest Service, CDOT, Colorado State Patrol, the city of Glenwood Springs, Garfield County and other partners have made progress toward a more sustainable solution in the face of these challenges.
While the final results may be a few years from fruition, shorter-term measures have included staffing the area with Forest Service seasonal rangers (who are paid in part by grants from the city of Glenwood Springs and Garfield County), restriping the parking area for more efficient traffic management and a more robust signage plan to educate visitors and encourage responsible behavior.
These measures will more than likely be part of the ultimate solution, but, in the meantime, they are simply not enough to remedy the issues that we are presented with.
It is for these reasons that the Forest Service and our partners are working hard to communicate the issues and promote responsible behavior while we also develop an effective management strategy at Hanging Lake.
If you plan to visit, come early for the best chance at getting a parking spot, read the signs and adhere to the rules that are currently in place, and if you see a Forest Service ranger, please follow directions and advice — and feel free to share your ideas for solutions.
I am honored to manage public lands on the White River National Forest for the use and enjoyment of our local communities and for our visitors, and I have confidence that our hard work will keep beautiful places like Hanging Lake enjoyable for present and future generations. Thanks for your help in getting us there.
Aaron Mayville is a deputy district ranger with the White River National Forest.
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