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Registration system for the wilderness

Staff Writer

A partial, required registration system will be in effect for the Weminuche Wilderness starting next summer.

Wilderness areas like the 488,340-acre Weminuche wilderness are designated by congress for non-motorized, non-mechanized public use.

The Wilderness Act, drafted by Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society and passed into federal law on Sept. 3, 1964 by the 88th U.S. Congress defines wilderness as: “… an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain … an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”

The law also states that wilderness areas shall, “generally appear to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable, have outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation, and have at least five thousand acres of land or be of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition.”

Wilderness areas “may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”

The passage into law of the Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System, which protects federally designated wilderness areas in accordance with the act. All management of designated wilderness areas is coordinated via this system, while specific wilderness areas are managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management or a combination of these agencies.

The Weminuche Wilderness area, originally designated by congress in 1975 and expanded in area by the Colorado Wilderness bills of 1980 and 1993, spans approximately 50 miles of the Continental Divide and is the largest designated wilderness area in Colorado. Located in the San Juan and Rio Grande National Forest areas, the Weminuche is managed entirely by the USFS. Federal law mandates that the Forest Service manage wilderness areas in accordance with the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Beginning in 1998, a five-year public process resulted in a National Environmental Policy Act analysis document that started a monitoring program in the San Juan and Rio Grande National Forests, in addition to identifying management actions to be taken if and when monitoring and data collection indicated the nearing of a landscape change threshold.

Monitoring efforts and data collection since this time have indicated that recreational use of the Weminuche Wilderness is beginning to have adverse impacts on the landscape in particular heavy use areas. Noted impacts include but are not limited to reduced vegetation, degraded water quality due to improper disposal of wastes, overcrowding, and soil sterilization resulting from illegal campfires. Taking note of these impacts, as well as their obligation to manage the Weminuche in accordance with federal law, local Forest Service officials have begun to move forward with a required registration system for the Weminuche Wilderness.

Other Colorado Wilderness areas that have required registration systems in place include the Maroon Bells-Snowmass, Mount Massive and Cloud Peak wildernesses. These systems require those entering the wilderness to register their presence by filling out a two-part form found at trailheads, local Forest Service offices or online. One part of the form is deposited in a box at the trailhead, while the second part, which has wilderness regulations printed on the back, is kept by the wilderness visitor during their stay.

Required registration systems do not impose usage fees or limit wilderness access. Additionally, required registration systems do not explicitly impact outfitting businesses, as these groups are already required to provide local agency officials with itineraries for wilderness visits.

Compared to voluntary registration systems, required registration systems allow wilderness managers to collect accurate data and monitor usage. Information collected then informs potential management actions to proactively reduce adverse impacts of wilderness use on the landscape — adverse impacts which, in turn, degrade the quality of the wilderness experience for visitors. Required registration systems also help wilderness managers to better communicate to the public how their actions might impact wilderness resources and the experience of other visitors. Educating wilderness visitors in this way instills a greater sense of responsibility for actions, while communicating the expectations of managing agencies.

A team of wilderness managers with the USFS has been working to design and implement a required registration system for the Weminuche in order to collect data that will better inform management of the landscape, resources and visitors. Earlier this year, five public forums were held during which the public could express concerns and provide input about the implementation of a required registration system. The intent of the group of wilderness managers pursuing the system was to implement a full-blown required registration program for the Weminuche beginning in the summer of 2014.

Due to depressed funding resources, a required registration system will not be fully functioning this coming summer. Instead, the USFS will phase in a required registration system as budgets allow. The SUN spoke with USFS employees Rosalind Wu, natural resource specialist and Brian White, wilderness program manager and project lead on required registration for the Weminuche, about the pursuit and partial implementation of a required registration system.

Both Wu and White explained that, although the USFS would like to implement a full-blown required registration system for the Weminuche this coming summer, lack of funds has caused local wilderness managers to reconsider what they are capable of doing next year.

“We’re not going to abandon it (required registration) because the current budget won’t allow complete implementation,” said Wu. “It’s still something that needs to happen for the Weminuche. Required registration will help us track usage patterns over time, observe trends and give us the ability to do something about them if necessary.”

Costs associated with implementing the new system include supply costs for the creation of forms and construction of boxes at trail heads, infrastructure and labor costs for the installation of system resources on the ground and, most importantly, the manpower that allows the agency to educate the public about the registration requirement, as well as enforce the rule.

As the USFS can’t cover these costs under current budget constraints, managers have chosen to proceed with partial implementation of a required registration system. This means there will be required registration stations at selected trailheads leading into the Weminuche, but not at all trailheads. Voluntary registration stations will likely be removed from trailheads selected for required registration to alleviate public confusion. Required registration stations will look different than voluntary stations, have informative signage, and contain a form different from that found at voluntary stations.

White explained that partial implementation will serve as a pilot project during which time the USFS will work to educate local wilderness users about the system, as well as to work out any difficulties that come up during implementation, before running a complete system in the future.

“We really want to do it right,” said White, explaining that the trailheads that will have required registration stations have yet to be defined. “The intent is to collect better information so we can better manage the Weminuche in the long term.”

Although incomplete, the information collected from the pilot system beginning next summer will be valuable to wilderness managers. The incomplete picture the forthcoming data creates will be further supplemented with USFS field monitoring and observation as well as completed by additional information as the required registration system is implemented to full scale in the future.

“Our goal is to manage and preserve wilderness areas inclusive of the wilderness experience,” said Wu.

USFS wilderness managers intend to implement a required registration system for the Weminuche Wilderness in a way that least impacts visitors while still providing additional data needed to manage the area responsibly and in accordance with federal law.

More information will be available about the partial implementation of a required registration system once representative wilderness managers from the San Juan and Rio Grande National Forests develop a more detailed and solid plan of action for this upcoming summer.

Dana.Hayward@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on December 5, 2013.