Forest Rangers tackle the conundrum of protecting loved-to-death wilderness

Were you to hike nearly nine miles into a wilderness area, paralleling a creek through alpine meadows and woods, you might expect to find solitude. But that’s not the case at Conundrum Hot Springs, an extremely popular area of natural pools at an elevation of over 11,000 feet with views of surrounding peaks in White River National Forest, Colorado. Dozens — and on busy weekends, sometimes hundreds — of overnight visitors hike in. Some even carry speakers and cases of beer. “It’ll be like you’ve gone to someone’s backyard for a pool party,” Karen Schroyer, Aspen-Sopris district ranger, says.

When Schroyer came to this job three years ago, she realized that the time had come to curb Conundrum’s overuse. On a wilderness retreat to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, she learned about the issues rangers were dealing with: human-bear conflicts, trash, trees hacked away for firewood, unofficial campsites too close to water and trails. And, most disturbingly, many visitors were answering nature’s call and neither burying nor carrying out the waste. “I was honestly just blown away,” Schroyer said.

The current situation at Conundrum Hot Springs arose from the overall increase in people recreating on Colorado’s public lands — a trend that will almost certainly continue — and the swift publicity of photos on social media and in glossy magazines. Schroyer said the internet has been “incredibly powerful” with places like Conundrum and Hanging Lake, which have become bucket-list destinations. She sees why people want to come — and they’re going to keep coming. “This is a gorgeous, gorgeous area,” she said. “We just need to do a better job of managing that use.”

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