No vacancy signs coming to a trailhead near you
The key concept in the effort to rein in surging overnight visitation in sensitive wilderness areas is the “groups at one time” threshold.
GAOT for short, this is the number of backpacking parties that Forest Service officials determine is appropriate for a given zone.
The volume of overnight visitors to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness on the Roaring Fork Valley’s southwestern flank has been growing for 15 years and set a new record in 2020, with 18,324 seeking a piece of flat ground for their mobile bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms. As we reported in our story published July 3, “Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness overnight overuse continues to increase,” this follows a trend of increasing use that has been building over the last 15 years.
For at least the last decade, the Forest Service has been systematically formulating how many groups at one time every corner of the 181,535 wilderness area — which is so spectacular it was established with the original Wilderness Act legislation in 1964 — can support. The GAOT standard is based on inventoried campsites that are setback at least 100 feet from main trails and water sources, as well as how primitive an area is in its access and expectations of solitude. The White River National Forest delineated 30 overnight zones as part of the 2016-’17 NEPA process that resulted in the Overnight Visitor Use Management Plan (OVUMP) for the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
Due to an excellent well of data from trailhead registration tags backpackers must fill out upon entering the wilderness, which denote where groups plan to camp, we know that for most zones, most of the time, staying under the GAOT isn’t a big problem. However, in high-use areas clustered around the Maroon Bells, Snowmass Lake and Capitol Lake, GAOT levels have gotten out of hand.
The alarm bells started ringing at Conundrum Hot Springs — a relatively easy 8-mile hike that was attracting so many people on the weekends that it was beginning to resemble a concert-festival tailgate, complete with inflatable pool toys. Shortly after the OVUMP’s approval, campers there were required to pull a permit, ensuring that no more groups at one time would show up than could be accommodated by 20 established campsites that meet sustainable land management protocol. Before 2018, when the permit system was implemented, the spillover crowd would pour into a ravine down the trail, carving new campsites out of the forest.
Things have calmed down at Conundrum. While there are still roughly the same amount of people accessing the springs for overnight camping, they are spread out throughout the week, not clustered on the weekends. The amount of trash and human waste rangers have had to deal with, as well as the number of problematic incidents observed, has fallen dramatically as the permit system creates an interface for users to understand expectations before they set out.
To date, Conundrum is the only place in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness where permits are required, though the OVUMP allows the Forest Service to implement a permit system for any zone where the GAOT threshold is exceeded on three or more nights in three out of five years. By that standard, there is a legal basis to immediately implement a permit system for camping zones along the Four Pass Loop.
Four Pass Loop campsites overloaded
Four Pass Loop is considered a national treasure of backpacking for good reason. Groups most often start and finish at Maroon Lake, but the 26-mile route passes through four distinct watersheds, crossing passes all over 12,000 feet high on its way by Snowmass Lake and around the bells. Every moment of the journey entails witnessing something interesting in the high alpine ecosystem. But with the the number of people taking to the loop in recent years, there is also lots of moving to the side of the trail so others can pass and crossing your fingers that the campsite area you had hiked all day to reach isn’t fully occupied
All the zones but one (the sparsely-treed area between West Maroon and Frigid Air passes) connected by the trail have regularly exceeded their GAOT thresholds each year since at least 2016. In some of the zones, being over GAOT is now almost a guarantee on most days, and the numbers have been steadily climbing since 2016. At Snowmass Lake, backpackers exceeding the GAOT threshold set up shop on 89 nights last year — almost the entirety of the backpacking season, and up from the previous high of 77 in 2018. At Crater Lake, 51 nights exceeded the GAOT limit last year. In the North Fork section, renowned for its pristine beauty at the headwaters of the Crystal River, 41 nights over the GAOT limit last year blew by the previous record of 24 set in 2018.
The crisis isn’t coming. It’s already here. But the Forest Service likely needs to charge a fee for the overnight camping permits, since without additional funds, the local ranger district won’t have the resources to enforce and administer the permit system, or fund restoration efforts to reclaim the landscape once inappropriate camping is snuffed out. Getting a new fee established is a bureaucratic process overseen by a federal board. There’s likely to be opposition to any proposal that puts a price tag on backpacking in a public wilderness area. And figuring out the logistics of a permit system for a hike that most people do over two or three nights utilizing different campsites along the way is complicated. So it’s taking some time to get the permit system finalized and rolled out, which is understandable. But what would your community do if tourists started sleeping and eating in the parking lot when all the rooms in the hotel filled up?
— Curtis Wackerle, editor
By Curtis Wackerle | July 2, 2021
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. Continue reading…
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