This might be the last summer, maybe the second to last, that backpackers accessing the Four Pass Loop will be able to do so without a permit to camp overnight along the 26-mile route circumventing the Maroon Bells and passing Snowmass Lake.
And if the trends exhibited in records kept by the U.S. Forest Service going back to 2006 continue, that means that this year, there will probably be even more people embarking on the journey, creating more campsites, cutting down trees because natural firewood foraging is tapped out, leaving trash and unburied human waste behind, and causing ever-increasing encounters with other groups and wilderness rangers.
Over the past decade and a half, the state of things along the Four Pass Loop and in a handful of other zones in the 181,535-acre Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness has been influenced by recreation demand so intense that many would question if the impacted areas can still be said to exhibit wilderness qualities.
That would be a particular shame for the landscape at the headwaters of the Colorado River basin containing seven peaks over 14,000 feet and nine trailed passes over 12,000 feet that was established as federally designated wilderness with the enabling legislation of the Wilderness Act in 1964.
But the numbers don’t lie. Total overnight visitors accessing the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness via the 10 most popular trailheads reached a new record in 2020, with 18,324 entering the backcountry to camp, according to data collected by the Forest Service based on the trailhead registration forms that backpackers are required to fill out. The previous high was set in 2018 with 18,035 overnight hikers, surpassing the record of 15,817 set in 2015.
Other indicators, such as the number of incidents that wilderness rangers documented on the trails and the number of people they came into contact with, trended upward last summer after four years of decline.
Last summer’s overnight use was almost double the volume in 2010, when 9,293 set out from the 10 most popular trailheads, according to data provided by the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest.
While some portion of last year’s record use was driven by pandemic restrictions on gathering indoors or at congregate events, local Forest Service officials are not expecting much relief this summer.
“Our anticipation is that there is still pent-up demand for the public to get out and get away from everything COVID-related, and the national forest is still a great place to do that,” Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Kevin Warner said. “We are doing everything we can with limited resources to get ready for that.”
Indiscriminate impacts escalate the response
Increasing recreational use impacting the physical environment and social experience of wilderness has long been identified as an issue in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. For decades, the local ranger district has employed an expanding array of educational campaigns, signage and special orders — such as rules requiring overnight hikers to carry bear-proof food canisters or prohibiting campfires in some areas — to mitigate the impact on the resource.
But those efforts have proven insufficient to meet the challenges presented by the volume of use, and in 2016, the Forest Service released a draft Overnight Visitor Use Management Plan for the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, which was approved in 2017.
“A complex suite of indirect to direct management actions taken over the past several decades have not been effective at preserving natural conditions in the face of this increasing user pressure,” the plan says. “Escalating the management response related to overnight use is needed to prevent further spread of the indiscriminate negative impacts to biophysical and social resources from occurring.”
The plan allows for the implementation of a “limited entry permit system” that can be tailored to specific areas within the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. At its core, it divides the wilderness area into 30 overnight camping zones and establishes thresholds for how many “groups at one time” (GAOT) a given sector can support. These thresholds, which can be adjusted up or down over time, are based on the wilderness characteristics of a specific area; zones are classified as pristine, primitive or semi-primitive, each with its own guidelines for how many other groups should be encountered along a trail or while camping. The limits also adhere to wilderness management standards that require campsites to be at least 100 feet from streams, lakes and main-system trails.
If the GAOT threshold in a zone is exceeded in three out of any five years, the plan, which was approved via the National Environmental Policy Act, allows Forest Service officials to require permits for overnight campers, in order to keep the number of visitors within what the resource can support. The plan also allows for the Forest Service to require permits in zones adjacent to the GAOT-noncompliant zones, if it is believed that requiring permits in one area will lead to displaced campers causing resource damage in the next zone over.
The limited entry permit system has been in place at Conundrum Hot Springs — which was seen as the most heavily impacted overnight camping zone — since 2018. The White River National Forest has been working on the effort to expand the permit system to the zones encompassing the Four Pass Loop in the years since. Capitol Lake has also been identified as an area where use patterns could potentially warrant a permit system.
Warner said Forest Service officials are working through the final details of the permit system and are planning extensive public outreach to communicate the changes to the public. If officials wish to charge a recreation fee to secure a permit — beyond the minimal service charge passed on via the recreation.gov platform — that would require an additional process guided by federal law, including oversight from a regional fee-setting board and public input.
Those additional fees would be needed to fund the new management framework called for in the overnight-visitors plan.
“Under the current Forest Service budget situation, it is impossible for the Forest Service to implement a limited entry permit system for the zones already known to be exceeding thresholds while providing the oversight and rehabilitation that are outlined in the (Overnight Visitor Use Management Plan),” Warner wrote in an email.
The earliest that a reservation system for areas outside of Conundrum would be in place is next summer, and having the reservation system in place is dependent upon completion of a public-outreach process, Warner said.
He added that the outreach — to elected officials, to people from outside of the Western Slope who make up 82% of overnight visitors and to advocacy groups — would ideally take place during a time of year when people are thinking about backpacking.
“If, for whatever reason, we can’t move through the process through the active backpacking season, then it might make sense to defer for another year and make sure we get it right,” he said.
Eighty-nine nights at Snowmass Lake
The management strategies outlined in the overnight visitor use management plan are designed to be applied in concert with robust data collection, resource monitoring and restoration work handled by wilderness rangers patrolling the overnight zones.
Data collection has been increasing for more than a decade. Rangers in 2020 completed their second five-year cycle, where detailed observations about recreation sites are completed for roughly 20% of the wilderness each year.
According to the 2017 overnight use management plan, the Forest Service from 2008 and 2010 inventoried all campsites observed in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Of the 729 found, just 51% were outside the 100-foot buffer from streams, lakes and trails, according to the plan.
This proliferation of camping areas — according to the survey, the 729 sites impacted an area the size of 35 football fields — poses the leading resource concern.
“Peak crowds from July through September overwhelm the number of available camping sites leading to the creation of new sites,” says the overnight visitor plan. “These additional sites create additional resource impacts from the increasing and concentrated overnight use.”
The document later says: “Long-term heavy visitation and campfire use along popular routes and at destinations has exhausted all available firewood. Persistent campfire use, despite a regulatory prohibition, results in the use of standing green trees as a firewood source. Significant tree damage and forest structure impacts have accumulated as a result of this behavior. The sterilization of soil and scarring of rocks associated with illegal campfire use is also causing negative effects to natural conditions.”
From 2011 through 2015, rangers removed and naturalized 964 illegal campfire rings in the wilderness area, the plan says. Later wilderness program reports say rangers removed 262 illegal fire rings in 2019 and 269 in 2020.
With the management changes helping to tame Conundrum, the number of campers exceeding GAOT standards has become most pronounced at Snowmass Lake.
According to an overnight use data summary from the White River National Forest, Snowmass Lake was the most heavily used zone in the wilderness in 2020, playing host to 3,289 groups during the season. That was an increase of 92% over 2019 and a 23% increase over 2018.
According to the overnight use plan, the GAOT threshold for the camping zone around Snowmass Lake is 15. That threshold was exceeded on 89 nights in 2020.
The North Fork camping zone, located in the Fravert Basin between Frigid Air and Trail Rider passes, saw 41 nights last year over the GAOT threshold of 19, while Crater Lake, the closest backcountry camping area to the Maroon Lake trailhead, exceeded the GAOT limit of 11 on 51 nights and the Maroon zone above Crater Lake saw 40 nights over the limit.
More compliance, less trash at Conundrum
The experience at Conundrum since 2018, when a limited entry permit system was first implemented, offers hope for restoration.
The number of total overnight visitors to the hot springs, located at 11,200 feet, has continued to trend upward since the implementation of the permit system, but the use has become more evenly distributed throughout the week, instead of being concentrated on weekends. According to the overnight management plan based on 2016 data for the entire wilderness area, 45% of overnight users entered the backcountry on a Friday or a Saturday. Flattening those weekend spikes as the Conundrum permits have done keeps the crowds small enough to use legal, established campsites and remain under GAOT thresholds.
One potential issue observed is that permits are often booked out throughout the busy season, but rangers and campers are observing actual campsite occupancy in the 50% to 75% range. The Forest Service is looking at ways to encourage people to cancel their online reservations if they decide not to go, freeing up the spots for someone else.
Other indicators are trending in the right direction. Illegal fires are down 99% since the pre-permit days, although rangers still dismantled 13 illegal fire rings last year. Rangers found only nine piles of unburied human waste in 2020, compared with 189 in 2015. Proper food-storage compliance is up to 95%. Total trash removed is down 80%.
“People have to plan now, rather than just showing up unprepared,” said Shelly Grail, recreation manager for the White River National Forest. “With the permit system, we have the opportunity to educate people when they are making that reservation, which has really been part of the success.”
This story ran in the July 3 edition of The Aspen Times.