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Photo by Sarah Boyum

What it Takes to Save Conundrum Hot Springs

The National Forest Service and Boulder-based nonprofit Leave No Trace partnered for a comprehensive approach to save the visibly degraded Conundrum Hot Springs earlier this year. So far, their effort appears to be paying off.

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Tucked in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen, Conundrum Hot Springs is a beautiful oasis. In recent years, though, the area has suffered overcrowding, improperly buried human waste, and general degradation. In considering how to address these issues, the U.S. Forest Service had a conundrum of its own.

In November 2017, the agency adopted the Overnight Visitor Management Plan. The strategic plan, which officially went into effect in April, instituted a permit system that limits the number of overnight visitors allowed per night at Conundrum and required visitors to reserve a camping spot at the popular destination in advance.

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The plan was a good start. Wilderness and trails program manager for U.S. Forest Service Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, Katy Nelson, says the permit system was not intended to be a silver bullet, but rather part of a comprehensive strategy to address the area’s overuse issues, while also educating visitors on how to protect the area from further damage.

In 2017, the Forest Service joined forces with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics (LNT), a Boulder-based organization that educates citizens about their impact on the environment, to rehab Conundrum, which the organization identified as a “Hot Spot“—an area suffering from severe impacts of outdoor activities that could benefit from LNT services.

In June 2017, LNT hosted a workshop at Conundrum that included informational classes and a site visit up to the hot springs with members of the Forest Service and media (the visit was profiled in 5280′s October feature, “Are We Loving Colorado’s Wild Places to Death?“). During the visit, LNT’s two traveling trainers, Donielle Stevens and Aaron Hussmann, engaged in conversation with people along the trail, promoted the use of WAG bags (portable toilets) to cut down on human waste, helped repair trail signage, and cleaned up illegal campsites and fire rings. Nelson also requested a video of the “Hot Spot” experience that she could share, and made sure it was front and center on the permit page for Conundrum Hot Springs.

In a follow-up site visit with LNT at Conundrum earlier this month—during the first season with the new permit system in place—Nelson described the experience as “night and day” compared to last year’s visit. In 2017, the crew encountered (and buried or hauled out) 69 instances of human waste. This trip yielded only 11 instances. The crew encountered hikers who were more prepared for what they’d encounter in the backcountry, with a “poop plan” and appropriate food storage. And the hot springs itself was quiet, with only a dozen visitors on a Saturday evening, usually primetime for an overload of people in the space.

The success so far in rehabilitating Conundrum isn’t due to fewer visitors. Instead, the permit system evenly redistributes the number of people camping in the area per night, as opposed to allowing for high traffic only on the weekends. It’s a tool, Nelson says, “that allowed us to still have visitation” in the midst of rehabbing the area. Correct trail signage, readily accessible WAG bags at the trailhead, and LNT’s informational video have all contributed to a changed environment at Conundrum, making it closer to the wilderness experience that people desire, in just one year.

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So, what’s next? Traveling LNT trainers Matt Schneider and Jessie Johnson, who accompanied Nelson and the Forest Service on the recent site visit, hope the team can build on this momentum by continuing education and even potentially replicating its success in other nearby areas with high use—namely the Four Pass Loop. Changing the narrative from telling people what they need to do to explaining why it’s important has proved effective in promoting long-term rehabilitation of this area, and hopefully, many others. Through these efforts, well-loved places like Conundrum will be preserved for years to come.

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