By John Colson
Growing alarm about overuse of certain campgrounds in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area has prompted forest managers to propose setting up a permit system for overnight use at such highly popular spots as the Conundrum Hot Springs and others located in the eastern portion of the wilderness area.
But, according to a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) of the proposed management plan for the 181,535-acre wilderness area, the permit system and possible fees for campers will not have much effect on the western part of the wilderness area adjacent to the Crystal River Valley — at least not initially.
The EA was released for public comment on March 29 by the White River National Forest (WRNF) Supervisor’s Office, kicking off a 30-day public comment period regarding the proposed plan that will run until April 28, and comments will be accepted electronically at tinyurl.com/MBWildEA.
The management system is needed, according to forest officials, because overnight use at some campgrounds in the wilderness area has been disturbing wildlife and altering the landscape, and needs to be better controlled.
Among the problems resulting from this overuse, according to wildlife rangers, have been unburied human waste, illegal campfires, loss of vegetation and the deposition of growing amounts of trash.
In addition, forest officials believe the overcrowding of certain camping areas has had a negative effect on the “wilderness experience” because of a loss of solitude.
“Littering, accidental or intentional, macro or micro, continues to pile up unnatural waste in the MBSW despite decades of Leave No Trace educational efforts,” states the draft plan, referring to a forest credo meant to discourage users from leaving trash or anything else behind them when they depart a campsite.
Forest Service officials, in creating the proposed management plan, have carved the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness (MBSW) into 30 “zones” for the purposes of the EA, each zone representing an area containing campgrounds and camping sites.
Five of these zones have been singled out as likely candidates for the permit/fee system under discussion.
The five include Conundrum Hot Springs (which is the first zone where forest officials expect to implement a permit system), Crater Lake, Snowmass Lake, West Maroon Valley and Minnehaha Gulch, and Capitol Lake, all of which are located in the eastern portion of the MBSW, closer to Aspen and Snowmass Village than to the rest of the Roaring Fork Valley.
In each zone in the wilderness, as listed in a chart included in the draft EA, the number of permitted campsites ranges from two to 22.
In some zones, the number of campsite is proposed to stay the same if the EA ultimately is adopted.
But in some zones, Forest Service planners are proposing reductions in the number of available camping sites, even in areas that currently are not considered to be under pressure from excessive use.
At the Lower Avalanche campground, for example, there currently are 26 campsites, but the EA calls for that number to be reduced to 20, to forestall overcrowding in the near future.
At Conundrum, however, the 16 existing campsites are projected to remain in place, according to the plan.
A main criterion for analyzing the use patterns at camp sites, according to the plan, is the “Groups At One Time” or GAOT, which essentially equals the number of approved campsites in any given zone. Groups, according to the planners, average 2.3 campers per night for the purposes of the plan, which is backed up by some 15 years of data collection and analysis, according to WRNF outdoor recreation planner Kay Hopkins and public affairs officer Kate Jerman.
So at the Lower Avalanche campground, for instance, a full campground on any given night could mean nearly 60 campers at once without exceeding capacity.
Hopkins said that capacity would have to be exceeded regularly before any zone would be considered a candidate for a permit or fee system.
“We’re looking at places where it’s been exceeded for three years (out of a five-year monitoring process),” Hopkins said. “We’re really monitoring for trends,” rather than rare or isolated instances of overuse.
At Conundrum Hot Springs, with only 22 camping sites currently and a history of attracting up to 300 campers during peak seasons, officials say the zone’s capacity has long been exceeded, and similar overcapacity findings have cropped up in the other four being eyed for permit programs.
Jerman confirmed that the management plan is not currently being considered for the zones in the western portion of the MBSW, but added, “It could potentially be applied to those areas if they surpass the threshold.”
Jerman said the GAOT allocation of campsites and maximum-capacity findings are based on provisions in the White River National Forest Plan adopted in 2002, and that of the zones in the western portion of the wilderness, only one — Kline Creek south of Redstone — has exceeded its threshold.
But, Hopkins noted, the Kline Creek zone has only two permitted campsites, and forest service analysts believe that the perceived overuse of those sites typically has happened during periodic hunting seasons, and the data is being re-examined to determine exactly what the camping numbers might reveal.
“If we don’t have it right, we’re going to get it right,” she stressed.
Still, Hopkins said, between 2011 and 2015, none of the zones in the western portion of the MBSW have been found to exceed the thresholds established by forest planners.
And aside from the numbers of campers found in a zone on a given date, the planners are using other criteria to determine if a zone is under undue pressure, such as how many “travel encounters” there are between one camping party and others in the immediate vicinity.
For example, in camping zones labeled “primitive” (the zones range from “pristine” to “semi-primitive” in the USFS ranking system), the situation is deemed to be under capacity if “no more than 12 other overnight parties (are) encountered per day on a system trail on 80 percent of the days during each use season.”
Using this and other means of monitoring use, the forest planners expect to learn if additional zones within the MBSW are nearing or exceeding their capacity and should be considered for more robust management plans in the future.
Given all that, Hopkins emphasized, the permit system is considered only if other options have been exhausted, including education campaigns, the placement of additional signs informing campers of the rules they must follow, and other methods of encouraging better behavior among users.
“The permit is the last thing we go to,” she said.