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A snowy Conundrum feels cleaner, thanks to permits

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Since implementing a system requiring backcountry permits in the summer of 2018, U.S. Forest Service officials say they have seen dramatic changes in the conditions of ­Conundrum Hot Springs and the surrounding area.

An increase in human waste and foot traffic prompted the agency to begin issuing permits for the hike, in an effort to preserve habitat and mitigate natural resource degradation of the delicate alpine ecosystem.

Though the permit system is relatively new, the effects on the area have been apparent. Comparing data provided by the White River National Forest for the summer of 2018 to the non-permitted summer of 2017 shows a number of noticeable differences.

One of the largest differences in the datasets was for improperly stored food. Last summer, there were 102 fewer violations than in the previous year.

Among other rules, groups are required to have a bear-safe container to store all food and snacks. In addition to avoiding a face-to-face encounter with a bear, the canisters help to ensure the animals don’t become dependent on human food.

Officials also noted a decrease in overall trash by 39 pounds. While the summer of 2018 still yielded close to 80 pounds of trash, lead wilderness ranger Tyler Lee said that statistic was a bit of an outlier.

“Fifty pounds of the recorded trash was in the form of wet blankets,” he said. “But it feels clean up there. We’ve seen improvement with more prepared visitors.”

Other notable metrics include only two illegal fires recorded in 2018 compared to 42 in 2017; 16 instances of exposed human waste, down from 69 the prior year; and no cut live trees compared to four in 2017.

According to Lee, rangers will be stationed in the area almost every night of the backpacking season to check permits, educate the public on “Leave No Trace” principles, and hand out WAG bags.

A WAG bag is an efficient and sanitary way to pack out human waste. While Lee noted that it is an awkward topic to bring up with hikers, packing out waste is a crucial step in preserving the delicate alpine environment. WAG bags will be offered for free at the Conundrum Creek Trail throughout the backpacking season.

“There have been a lot of positives with the permits,” said Lee. “We have seen a drastic change in Conundrum, the hot springs and the overall visitor experience.”

Heading into this summer, permits for the hike are selling fast, despite parking challenges, remaining avalanche debris and difficult route finding, due to snow and downed trees.

A historic avalanche ran from a mile-wide start zone on Highlands Ridge to the Conundrum valley floor in early March, taking out countless trees, damaging a home and laying waste to the Conundrum Creek trailhead and parking lot.

Visitors should plan for variable trail conditions and potential route-finding difficulty through the debris. The snow line has receded; however, hikers should expect to encounter snowy conditions as soon as two miles from the start of the avalanche debris. Familiarization of oneself with the route will be helpful as well, since the trail is largely hidden under numerous trees, pine brush and logs.

If you’re thinking of going to Conundrum Hot Springs, log on to recreation.gov and purchase a non-refundable, non-transferrable permit for $6.

Spread across 20 designated sites, 68 people are allowed to camp near the hot springs per night, with a maximum group size of six. Current conditions do not allow parking in the vicinity of the trailhead, and parking along the road is prohibited. Parties should plan to be dropped off and picked up to avoid trespassing on private property.

Permits are expected to sell out during the height of the backpacking season, despite parking complications and the lack of a formal trailhead. At this time, July and August are completely booked, and spots are filling up fast for the remaining months. Rules and trip information can be found online, as well as any alerts or updates from the Forest Service.

Overall, it seems permitting has left a positive impact on the area, with 56 percent fewer incidents reported in the summer of 2018 than in the year prior.

“We are really proud of the permit implementation,” said Lee, “but we have a long way to go and lots of work to do in the area. The true test will be moving forward.”