When crowds pack the backcountry

The number of people in the backcountry has begun to balloon for the summer season as the high-country snow melts and tourists and locals alike head for areas generally accessible only in the fairer months.

Actually, backcountry traffic has been rapidly growing over the past decade, which is why the U.S. Forest Service implemented a mandatory registration system this summer for parts of the heavily used Holy Cross and Maroon Bells-Snowmass wilderness areas.

This will be viewed by some as an infringement on the freedom of the hills philosophy, but it is a necessary one.

The pilot program will give the USFS some hard numbers when studying the impacts of hikers and horseback riders on the trails. The managers of our forests need to know what’s going on in order to keep the backcountry healthy – both the wildlife and landscape – and to protect the outdoor experience of those people who use the trails.

The obvious next step in the registration program – which should be implemented only after intense research that takes into account the use levels indicated by permitting – is permit quotas and/or fees. This would limit the number of visitors in heavily used areas, and could provide income to offset impacts and help manage use.

No one wants the access to our backcountry limited by dollars or permit limits. But let’s face it, most of us have been on trails so crowded the feeling of rush hour is more prevalent than the feeling of getting into the wilderness. Not to mention the fact that traffic of any kind has an impact on the environment.

There’s little chance of seeing wildlife or enjoying the solitude of the outdoors when it’s required to pull to the side of the trail every hundred feet to allow another group to pass. It’s these heavily used areas, and only these areas, that should be targeted by permit/quota/fee programs.

The USFS should move cautiously in implementing any plan for our wilderness that limits its use for the outdoor enthusiast. There are plenty of areas that don’t see much traffic and the USFS should take great strides to not overregulate trails in the wilderness.

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