Wilderness limited


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

I don’t go to the mega-Whole Foods in Boulder at lunchtime on Saturdays because it’s a madhouse, like some Lord of the Flies experiment where hordes of people jockey to secure a limited supply of resources. According to a study I read recently, when facing the prospect of crowding, I’m an “adjuster,” or one who displaces oneself spatially—I go somewhere else for lunch—and also temporally—I go to Whole Foods only on weekdays.

Those people who are undeterred by the chaos and go anyway are called “rationalizers.” They may not have expected a crowd but quickly adapt to having to throw a few elbows to score the last bento box of sushi. They think, “Well, it is noon on a Saturday at Whole Foods in Boulder.” Basically, they cope with the masses accepting that nothing can be done to change the situation and they might as well suck it up.

The study I was reading, done by the Rocky Mountain Research Station, was not, however, examining crowd control of manic organic food caches, but of wilderness areas. It looked at the questions: What will happen as population grows and management of wilderness becomes increasingly critical? Will we accept a loss of solitude in once soothing places, or will we apply limits to wilderness use? The results were not what I expected, but I’ll get back to that.

They’re pondering such questions about wilderness management in the Aspen-Sopris District of the U.S. Forest Service, which manages portions of five wilderness areas and has some crowding issues. A recent article in the Aspen Times runs the numbers on a few problem areas. The top three are the iconic Four Pass Loop, Conundrum Valley (including its frat-like hot springs) and Snowmass Lake which combined had 21,121 user days, meaning the total numbers of days all users were in those areas (not including day use, which has also soared).

Conundrum Hot Springs, deep in the "wilderness." Courtesy the author.

The stress of visitation is best seen in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, the most popular of Aspen's wilderness areas, which absorbed about 33,000 overnight visits in Fiscal Year (FY) 2011. The effects include scores of illegal fire rings, soil compaction and human waste. As Andrew Larson, lead wilderness ranger in Aspen-Sopris says, “Thirty thousand nights in the wilderness is a lot of poop.”

Maroon Bells-Snowmass was one of areas originally protected with the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. In advance of its 50th anniversary, the USFS is looking at how to handle this stress, which is counter-intuitive to the spirit of the Act. Are the conditions at Maroon Bells-Snowmass unique or can we expect we’ll be facing these challenges at other wilderness areas as our population swells? Are we already?

A recently published USFS survey, which looks at FY 2005 to 2011, shows visitation to all national forests has steadily increased during that time. The Forest Service averages visitations over four year spans. For example, from FY 2005 to 2009, the average number of visitors was 164.4 million and, from FY 2007 to 2011, visitation was 165.9. These numbers are the agency’s best estimates; they say that for FY 2011 alone, actual visitation could be as high as 171.2 million visitors. The most significant categorical rise occurred from FY 2009 to 2011, during which the number of overnight visits to developed sites and to wilderness increased 15 percent.

Considering the rise in the number of people spending more time in national forests, the survey also gathered information on visitors’ perception of their experiences. From FY 2007 to 2011, on scale of 1 (hardly anyone there) to 10 (overcrowded), most people settled in the 4 to 7 range. The highest percentage of day use visitors gave their experience a 6, as did overnight users of developed areas. The perceptions of people responding about designated wilderness area visits were dispersed; most gave their experiences a 2, which was closely followed by 4, 3, 6 and 5.

Another recent study based on users of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington and Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness, looked at what factors most detracted from visitors’ having a “real wilderness experience.” It revealed that while people don’t like to have others camp nearby them in the wilderness, or when strangers walk through their camp, the biggest factor detracting from their experience was seeing litter.

Clearly our feelings are mixed regarding whether or not our visits to wild areas are fulfilling our expectations and desires. Given that, in a place like the Aspen-Sopris, reaction to any management changes—limits on visitors in high use areas, diversions to less-impacted trails and areas, for example—is going to be all over the map.

This brings me back to the adjuster/rationalizer study, which was based on a sample of visitors to 19 Forest Service wildernesses in Oregon and Washington. While most people surveyed perceived adverse change and had a “widespread sense that these places seem less like wilderness than they did in the past,” “Most visitors do not consider changing conditions to be very problematic, probably because their coping mechanisms are successful.” Therefore, support for management actions that restrict access, for the explicit purpose of improving the visitor experience (versus mitigating biophysical impacts), was minimal.

For those who argue that management should disperse users among popular and lesser-used areas in order to protect the crowd-pleasing places, another illuminating study looked at camping in previously undisturbed forest and meadow sites in the Wind River Range. There were two results that may shed light on how we might lessen the impact of growing numbers of visitors.

The first shows that user impact on forested areas is substantial—60 percent of vegetation was eliminated with a one night stay; that amount increased to 80 percent with a four night stay. In meadows, the damage was much less; in the first year of camping, a four-night stay didn’t make a dent. Degradation was only seen in year two with a 20 percent loss, which did not increase in subsequent years. Recovery from even short-term use in all previously unused areas is considerable.

So, in terms of the effects of wood use and trampling, studies show additional use in established areas is less destructive than opening new areas. The possible exception is in meadow areas, which are better able to absorb new users.

The Wilderness Act requires that an area “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable” and “has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” Various people will have different ideas about which of those factors should be most carefully guarded—I value solitude, while being “unconfined” is more important to people I know. But that doesn’t mean we have no individual control over the state of our wilderness.

John Muir said, “Go forth into the mountains and get their good tidings. Let the winds blow their freshness into you. And the storms their energy.” Today he might add, “And, when you leave, pack out your crap!” Stepping up our outdoor ethics, and the teaching of them, including being mindful of other people, may go a long way toward soothing all wilderness users—the adjusters and rationalizers among us—as we cope with our growing pains.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Image of aspens in front of the Maroon Bells courtesy City of Aspen/Pitkin County.

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