- Associated Press - Saturday, August 9, 2014

ASPEN, Colo. (AP) - Forest rangers and environmentalists from the Aspen area will get together Saturday to celebrate the creation of wilderness lands 50 years ago, but it’s not going to be all fun and games.

They also will share concerns about the loss of wilderness characteristics wrought by industrial tourism, particularly in the popular Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

“It’s a good time to look back and celebrate,” said Dave Reed, communications director for Wilderness Workshop, the oldest homegrown environmental group in the Roaring Fork Valley. It’s also a time to look forward to determine “what will the next 50 years bring,” he said.

The Wilderness Act was passed in 1964 with the goal of keeping designated lands natural, undeveloped, untrammeled and ripe with solitude for visitors. The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness was included in the original inventory for good reason - it has six peaks higher than 14,000 feet, nine passes higher than 12,000 feet, 100 miles of trails and scenery that draws people from around the world.

But the characteristics that make it so special are also subjecting it to great pressure. Certain destinations are so popular, they are losing their wilderness appeal, said Andrew Larson, lead wilderness ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.

Wilderness rangers counted 50 people at the Conundrum Hot Springs on July 25. As the rangers hiked out of the valley, they encountered 160 backpackers heading to the popular springs. That doesn’t include backpackers hiking in from the Crested Butte site.

Typically, crowds topped 200 only on Saturday nights around the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends, Larson said.

There were 34 vehicles crammed into the parking lot at the trailhead last weekend. Another 30 vehicles lined Castle Creek Road, the closest alternative parking.

“The trailhead parking is indicative of what’s going on in the backcountry,” Larson said.

Rangers hauled out 26 pounds of trash Saturday, Larson said. Conundrum visitors are urged at the trailhead to take free plastic bags to pack out human waste. Nevertheless, inadequate burial of human waste in campsites used by people visiting the springs is a problem, Larson said. A 2007 survey showed that 71 percent of Conundrum campsites have exposed human waste.

The Conundrum Hot Springs aren’t the only hotspot in the wilderness area. Rangers counted 502 people hiking between West Maroon Pass and Maroon Lake on Sunday. That’s a popular hiking route between Aspen and Crested Butte with a typically impressive display of wildflowers.

The Crater Lake area has become so busy with campers and hikers that a wilderness ranger stays there Fridays and Saturdays. Contacts with 300 people per day are the norm. Among random days when use was monitored, the highest number of hikers on the Crater Lake Trail was 954 on Sept. 22, 2012.

Snowmass Lake and Thomas Lake are inundated with campers. Trails to Cathedral and American lakes are crammed with hikers.

Overnight visits to all locations in Maroon Bells-Snowmass soared to about 49,000 in 2013 from about 30,000 the year before, according to the White River National Forest Supervisor’s Office. Those visits are crammed into a short period, roughly from mid-June through September.

The Forest Service doesn’t want to turn the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act into a bummer, but its focus at the party Saturday at the base of Aspen Highlands will be on the stewardship challenges in Maroon Bells-Snowmass.

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