There are 54 'official' Colorado 14ers mountains rising above 14,000 feet and at least 300' from an adjacent saddle. An estimated 500,000 people climb on 53 of the 14ers each year without fees or permits, today.
One, Culbera, is on private property and the owners charge $100 per climber. Now, the U.S. Forest Service (NFS) is investigating charging for other 14ers starting with four highly popular 14ers in Southern Colorado.
The primary issue land managers are struggling with is that many of the 14ers are being climbed so much that the trails are getting overused, scattered with trash, toilet paper and poop and all the other problems that comes with a lot of use. It is common to have well over 100, even 200, cars at a popular trailhead in the busy summer months. Similar to other popular areas in California, Oregon and Washington State, Colorado is now considering permits and fees to both control crowds and fund maintenance.
The NFS is testing a proposal for the South Colony Basin (SCB) in the Sangre de Cristo range. It has four 14ers: Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, Kit Carson Peak, and Humboldt Peak. The idea is to charge $10 per person per day for day trips, and $20 per person per trip for overnight trips for anyone over 18 from May 15 through October 15. The area gets 4500 hikers each year and there are no restroom facilities, and while there are designated camping sites, people camp everywhere.
I was last there in late 2008 and while still remote wilderness, it shows the signs of overcrowding and poor outdoor habits. For example, there were areas where it was obvious that too many people used as the toilet spot.
The NFS has already taken some action for the South Colony area. The trailhead has been lowered 2.5 miles downhill due to road conditions, campfires have been banned, camping is now restricted to designated sites, and a voluntary program of packing out human waste in "WAG Bags" is being implemented this year (2010).
Also under consideration is to start charging to climb Longs Peak since it is inside Rocky Mountain National Park. The traihead off Colorado Highway 7 is outside the Park gates so no one has to pay today. If it happens, it is still years away since they have to build and staff a gate. There are an estimated 15,000 people a year who attempt Longs.
For years a variety of volunteer organizations have performed the majority of trial creation and maintenance in cooperation with the Forest Service. They include the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI), Colorado Mountain Club, Rocky Mountain Field Institute, and Volunteers Outdoor Colorado (VOC). To see what it takes to build a trail, look at this video from VOC; you will have a new appreciation for the work required.
The CFI positions these volunteer efforts and result well:
In cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, CFI has completed impact studies on all of Colorado’s 54 Fourteeners. Using criteria on resource damage, rate of change, impacts to threatened, endangered, or sensitive species, and U.S. Forest Service priorities at the district level, CFI has identified 35 heavily impacted peaks and basins for priority action. To date, CFI has conducted trail restoration and delineation work on 18 Fourteeners: Mount Elbert, Mount Belford, Mount Oxford, La Plata Peak, Humboldt Peak, Huron Peak, Mount Harvard, Grays and Torreys Peaks, Missouri Mountain, Mount Bierstadt, Quandary Peak, Capitol Peak, Tabeguache Mountain, Mount Sneffels, Wetterhorn Peak, Mount Evans, Pyramid Peak, and Mount Massive.
However with exploding Federal and State deficits, budget constraints and an increasing Colorado population, land managers feel they must move now to get ahead of the problem.
The obvious concern is for people who philosophically feel paying for using public lands is wrong or who are already use the land responsibly. And that the funds raised will be diverted elsewhere. Also for large families, a fee per person could add up quickly not to mention the impact on those on fixed incomes like senior citizens who enjoy getting out. The last thing we need to do is discourage people and families for getting out of the house! Note, there would be no fee for those under 18 in the SCB proposal.
While I understand the need to fund the management of trails, I am not sure this is the best mechanism. I think it will discourage the use of the area except for the 14er peak baggers.
I have climbed almost all the 14ers and can say the trail systems range from sparse to amazing. I have often seen armies of volunteers on the trails working hard out of their love for the wilderness. I have also seen people behaving badly with their disregard for their impact on the land. They simply do not get or don't care about the "leave no trace' concept.
I believe the answer is to join, donate and contribute to the already proven private volunteer organizations that work in conjunction with government organizations. And secondly to increase the education of individuals on leave no trace fundamentals to prevent the problem in the first place. These include simple acts like, no switchbacks, pack in and pack out - everything, no campfires, and other techniques.
All this said, I do think the high use areas of Colorado will go the way of California’s Whitney Area or Mt. Rainier of requiring and limiting the number of permits for the high use areas sooner or later.
But with 54 14ers and 637 13ers, there will always be lot’s of Hills to climb for free. And when you do, please leave no trace for the next time you climb or for other climbers out there.
The South Colony fee proposal would require approval by the Colorado Recreation Resource Advisory Committee, which reviews all federal agency fee plans in Colorado. The committee is expected to review the plan in early 2011 and if OK'd, the permit system will likely be installed for the 2012 summer season.
To fully understand the SCB proposal, I encourage you to read the full proposal including a Q&A with the San Carlos Ranger District at this link.
What do you think?