Loved to death? Colorado wilderness management needs new direction, panel says |

Loved to death? Colorado wilderness management needs new direction, panel says

summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily/U.S.F.S.

LAKEWOOD ” For all the postcards that have been sent from Colorado showing pristine mountain lakes, waterfalls and craggy peaks, there is another, less picturesque side, to some of the state’s most popular wilderness areas.

The dirty little secret is that some of our most scenic mountain spots are being loved to death, campsites trampled by over-use, trails crumbling away and causing erosion and runoff in crystal clear streams. In some spots, land managers don’t even have the ability to deal with the significant amounts of human waste being generated.

Many, but not all, of the hot spots are near the state’s most urbanized areas. In Summit County, parts of the Eagles Nest Wilderness are under the gun, including the Lily Pad Lake area, said Beth Boyst, wilderness manager for national forest lands in Eagle County, singling out just one of the local trouble spots.

Parts of the Holy Cross Wilderness, the Maroon Bells and Crater Lake, near Aspen, and Mount Bierstadt in Clear Creek County, are some of the trouble spots in adjacent areas, Boyst said.

Curbing the impacts now is critical, because in some cases, repairing the damage is not really an option. Restoration is a humbling experience, said Mark Hesse, of the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, referring to efforts by the Colorado Fourteeners Initative to revegetate trails and reclaim eroded land on some of Colorado’s most popular peaks. “In some cases, forget it, it’s gone, especially in the high alpine areas,” Hesse said.

“Wilderness is under pressure,” Hesse continued, referring specifically to congressionally designated wilderness areas. “We’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars dealing with problems that started 10 or 15 years ago,” Hesse said.

Of course, not every patch of mountain wilderness is facing these problems. But due to Colorado’s growing population and projected increase in demand for recreation, Hesse and a cohort of wilderness stakeholders spent more than 1,000 man-hours in recent months hammering out a set of recommendations for the U.S. Forest Service, which manages most of the areas.

The panel presented its list to the agency’s top regional leaders Tuesday, calling for a holistic, statewide look at wilderness management, increased monitoring, the prevention of further degradation of existing wilderness areas and the addition of new wilderness areas to take the pressure off some of the most heavily used areas.

More public education about wilderness values is also needed, along with better funding and staffing for the agency’s wilderness programs. And at some point, the agency might have to consider implanting a permit-based quota system if the monitoring finds unsustainable use in some locations. Such a system is already used in the Indian Peaks Wilderness near Boulder, and some White River National Forest wilderness areas have also adopted a permit system (without quotas) as a way to track user numbers.

Permits and caps on user numbers are likely to be controversial. But it might be the only way to prevent serious impacts in some places, said panel member Tom Phillips.

“I think that’s part of what we’re trying to do here, is to prepare people for that idea,” Phillips said.

For the full list of recommendations, go to

“This entire process was driven by our field wilderness managers,” said regional Forest Service wilderness manager Ralph Swain. The rangers in the field recognize the existing and impending challenges, and want to find a way to take management action now to address future problems, he explained.

As of today, only 17 of the 46 designated Forest Service wilderness areas in Colorado are managed to a “minimum base level” of the standards required under individual forest plans, Swain said. Those standards call for strict preservation of natural resources in pristine condition and also outline desirable social conditions for the area, including the number of person-to-person encounters deemed acceptable in a wilderness setting.

As is often the case with public land management issues, it comes down to funding. How much does the Forest Service need to adequately manage the 5 million acres of wilderness in the Rocky Mountain Region (3.2 million in Colorado)?

“I’ll give you an intuitive answer,” said Swain. “We need about $1 per acre. $5 million dollars per year,” he said, adding that the current budget provides for about half that amount. Some of the field-level managers will tell you that Swain’s number is still too low, but with $5 million per year, the agency could probably get a handle on some of the most pressing problems.

But even if more money materializes, another big part of the answer lies in citizen stewardship. The Forest Service will never have enough money to meet all the urgent needs of today; whether It’s managing energy development, trying to stem the pine beetle epidemic or preserving the wildest and ecologically healthy wilderness areas.

Grassroots support groups and volunteers area huge part of the equation, Swain said.

It’s not clear how the Forest Service will proceed with the recommendations. But at least the issue has garnered a higher profile within the agency.

“We as an agency have prioritized this. But it’s hard to say what the next step is,” Boyst concluded.

Go to for more on national forest wilderness.

Check out Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness or Friends of the Dillon Ranger District for more information on local stewardship and volunteer opportunities.

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