The story of the off-season about cow carcasses found at Conundrum Hot Springs cast a bright light on the heavy use the wilderness areas around Aspen endure.
With as many as 120 people a night in the summer camping at the hot springs — an 8.5-mile walk from the trailhead — it leads one to question whether it can still be said that the area is being managed to “preserve its natural condition,” as the federal Wilderness Act requires. Finding solitude at Conundrum and other heavily-used backcountry destinations can be difficult, simply because of the increased number of people going there.
We are sympathetic to the difficult decision-making process local Forest Service officials are undertaking, which has led them to consider implementing a permit or reservation system to visit the most popular local backcountry destinations, like Conundrum or Snowmass Lake. While we would not look forward to having to sign up to explore parts of Aspen’s backyard, we recognize such a system may be a necessity for the sake of the land, as well as meeting the intent of the act, which states that wilderness must be a place of solitude.
We also recognize that such a system might not be needed if everyone who visited these areas understood and practiced leave-no-trace backcountry camping. Using portable toilets, which facilitate the packing out of human waste, is an ethic all backcountry users need to have. That may not sound pleasant, but try this on for size: Because of the failure of campers to pack out their poop, the water in the hot springs has shown elevated levels of fecal matter. That affects everyone who visits there, no matter how ethical they are in their camping practices.
If there was a marked improvement in the number of people packing out their waste — the Forest Service can keep track of how many of the portable toilets are taken from the give-away sites — then perhaps there wouldn’t be such a need to go with stricter management policies. Either way, it’s the right thing to do. The land that surrounds Aspen is undoubtedly our most valuable asset, and deserves our respect.
In that same vein, we urge all backcountry users to abide by no-campfire regulations where they are in effect, which exist to protect the forest from being picked clean of wood. Stay on the trail. In general, tread as lightly as possible. All human activity has impacts on wildlife and the land. Minimizing those impacts is an ethos we should all take to heart.
We commend local Forest Service officials for being proactive about protecting the land and seeking to engage the community in these important policy matters. It’s an important conversation in which everyone who loves the outdoors should take an interest.
Local river runners are familiar with permit and reservation systems, which have been in place for years on the Westwater stretch of the Colorado River, and for the first time this year are in place on the Ruby-Horsethief stretch. While it certainly would be easier to not have to get a permit, the situation called for greater regulations. Too many boaters left the river trashed, and conflicts had become common with too many people gunning for limited camping spots.
In a perfect world, voluntary responsible use would be ubiquitous, and all that land managers require. Unfortunately it is not. If the Forest Service must implement a permit system to counteract harmful human impacts on the heavily-traveled terrain, we can live with that.
As another Colorado summer begins, and with these important decisions at hand, there has never been a better time to reflect on the importance of wilderness, and what more we can do to protect and honor the land.