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To Clean Up Conundrum Hot Springs, Forest Service Seeks To Limit Overnight Campers

Luke Runyon
Hikers relax in Conundrum Hot Springs near Aspen, Colorado in summer 2016.

Citing pounds of garbage, piles of human waste and illegal campfires, the U.S. Forest Service has announced draft rules that would limit the number of overnight campers to popular spots in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area near Aspen.

Before the summer of 2018 the Forest Service plans to implement a permit system that would require backpackers to purchase a reservation to camp overnight in the Conundrum valley, home to the heavily-trafficked Conundrum Hot Springs.

The limits to Conundrum’s foot traffic is the first phase of new limits to camping in the Wilderness area. Other limits are coming to the Four Pass Loop -- the 28-mile trail that encircles the Maroon Bells -- which includes Crater Lake, Maroon Lake, and Snowmass Lake. A third phase would limit campers at Capitol Lake and the trails that lead to Capitol Peak.

As of summer 2017, the price for a reservation through the Forest Service’s online reservation portal is $10. Groups of up to 10 can be under a single reservation. That money goes to maintain the website, not to pay for additional rangers or services. But the agency isn’t ruling out an additional permit fee that would be levied on groups to pay for the resources to enforce the new limits and restore some of the damage done to the fragile alpine ecosystem. Any additional fee would require a separate public process.

The Forest Service first began considering camping limits at Conundrum Hot Springs in the late 1980s, when foot traffic started to spike. The picturesque high-elevation hot spring pool has topped “must-do” lists for backpackers and tourists for years. Thousands of Instagram posts show nude bathers gazing down the alpine valley.

Since then Forest Service rangers have documented increasing numbers of overnight campers and their toll on the surrounding wilderness. In 2016 rangers packed out 136 pounds of garbage from the Conundrum Valley. They’ve also seen piles of unburied human waste, campsite hardening, erosion, illegal campfires and dog waste.

While the Forest Service requires backpackers near the hot springs to camp only in designated spots, overflow dispersed camping below the springs has boomed too. Rangers say campers will sometimes abandon whole campsites in the wilderness. They’ve packed out barbecue grills, five-person tents and camping chairs left behind. The trail is more than 8 miles from trailhead to hot springs.

People opposed to the plan have 45 days to file an objection to the draft rules, but only those who submitted written comments during the initial scoping period or the initial comment period are eligible to file an objection.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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