Forest Service provides glimpse of permit system for Aspen-area’s Conundrum Hot Springs |

Forest Service provides glimpse of permit system for Aspen-area’s Conundrum Hot Springs

It's party time at the Conundrum Hot Springs in a shot from a recent summer evening. The Forest Service wants to limit visitors through a permit system.
White River National Forest courtesy photo |

The U.S. Forest Service wants to replace wildness with wilderness at the Conundrum Hot Springs.

The agency wants to implement a new management system for the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness that would better equip it to adapt to surging popularity and changing conditions in certain areas.

The biggest change in style would be implementation of a permit system to visit high-use areas such as Conundrum Hot Springs, the Four Pass Loop and possibly Capitol Lake, Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer told the Pitkin County commissioners in a briefing Tuesday.

A permit system could be in place as soon as summer 2017 for Conundrum, she said. At this preliminary stage, the Forest Service is looking at limiting the number of campsites to 20 and capping the number of people those sites can accommodate. There are currently 18 sites in the upper basin where the hot springs are located. However, wilderness rangers have counted as many as 75 groups of various sizes visiting there at one time in recent years.

There were 15,000 backcountry visitors to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass wilderness area in 2013 — a 40 percent increase from five years earlier. Forest Service officials said the high use is degrading the resources through illegal campsites, stripping of tree for firewood and improperly buried human waste. Conundrum often resembles a party scene more than a wilderness area.

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A video describing the environmental degradation can be found at

“It will make a big difference up there,” Schroyer said of the permit system. “They may actually have a wilderness experience at Conundrum.”

Looking at capacity

A permit system will be tougher to institute on the Four Pass Loop because there are multiple trailheads providing access, Schroyer said. A permit system won’t be ready there for 2017, she said. The 26.4-mile loop cross four spectacular passes above 12,000 feet in elevation — Buckskin, Trail Rider, Frigid Air and West Maroon. It is immensely popular with backpackers and with a growing number of adventurers that tackle it in one day.

The Forest Service also is assessing if permits should be required at Capitol Lake.

The White River National Forest had Lead Wilderness Ranger Andrew Larson perform an analysis this winter on the capacity of various areas in the 183,847-acre wilderness area southwest of Aspen. His work will help establish a baseline for capacity.

The drainages were divided into zones that can be managed independently based on issues and conditions that arise.

The Forest Service will unveil its adaptive management strategy later this year and invite the public to comment. The White River intends to perform an environmental analysis of the plan rather than the more stringent environmental impact statement, Schroyer said. The intent is to create a management plan for the next 20 years for the entire wilderness, not just the current high-use destinations.

“We didn’t want to come up with a quick fix,” Schroyer said. “We wanted to look long term.”

Provides other tools

Adaptive management would allow the Forest Service to implement new rules to provide protection to other drainages without limiting the number of visitors.

“We’re not coming in heavy-handed,” Schroyer said.

For example, if wilderness rangers noticed that people who were not properly burying waste were adversely affecting a specific drainage or zone, the agency could require visitors to carry what’s known as WAG bags, Schroyer said.

If other drainages were getting damaged from backpackers camping at too many locations, the agency could designate dispersed campsites and require their use, Schroyer said.

She said the permit system is only being performed for the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. There are more visitors there then at the other wilderness areas surrounding Aspen — the Hunter-Fryingpan, Holy Cross, Collegiate Peaks and Raggeds.

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