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Courtesy of San Juan National Forest

The Needle Creek Trail in the Weminuche Wilderness leads into Chicago Basin, a popular destination for climbers who want to scale Fourteeners Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak, visible here at left center, as well as Eolus Peak. The trail is nearing its capacity for use as determined in a 1998 management plan.

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

Visitors to the Weminuche Wilderness are going to be required to register before entering the almost 500,000 acres that stretch from Silverton to Wolf Creek Pass.

Use and abuse of the pristine mountains, valleys and waterways through the years now require switching from voluntary to mandatory registration at trailheads, the San Juan National Forest said in a news release.

“During the first two to three years of the new requirement, we’re going to educate the public on the reasons,” Forest Service spokeswoman Ann Bond said Saturday. “After that, rangers can issue citations.”

Columbine District Ranger Matt Janowiak will explain the rationale for the new protocol, which will not change traditional uses or impose a fee, to La Plata and San Juan county commissioners Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.

The mandatory registration requirement will not apply to other wilderness areas.

“We have some preliminary data that indicates that in a couple of areas we’re bumping up to the numbers (of visitors) we set in the 1998 management plan,” Janowiak said in a telephone interview Saturday.

The Needles Trail into Chicago Basin – a staging area for tackling three nearby 14,000-foot peaks – and the Vallecito Trail north of Durango – are nearing their carrying capacity, Janowiak said.

Wilderness areas are meant to be just that, Janowiak said. Visitors should expect a limited number of human encounters instead of frequently rubbing shoulders with others communing with nature.

Meetings in Durango, Silverton, Creede, Lake City, Pagosa Springs and Vallecito to explain the requirements to the public are scheduled this month and next.

The Weminuche Wilderness, which spans the Continental Divide, was created by Congress in 1975 and expanded to its current size by Colorado Wilderness Bills in 1980 and 1993. It is the state’s largest wilderness.

Wilderness designation prohibits motorized and mechanized travel (off-road vehicles or bicycles). Only foot traffic is permitted. Wilderness legislation also requires that public land agencies eliminate negative effects on wilderness areas.

In 1998, a five-year planning process began, producing a number of policy decisions. Among them were voluntary collection of data from wilderness visitors and actions to be taken when impacts approached or exceeded thresholds.

Limits are being reached, the statement said.

Information gathered from voluntary sources and observations by rangers indicates that visitors are denuding landscapes, sterilizing soil with campfires, improperly disposing of human waste and degrading wetlands and lake shores.

Mandatory registration by visitors will improve the ability of San Juan National Forest officials to monitor uses of the Weminuche and determine the effectiveness of efforts to slow or reverse detrimental impacts.

National forests across the West require mandatory registration at wilderness trailheads, the news release said.

In the Rocky Mountains, registration is required at the Maroon Bells (Aspen/Glenwood Springs area), Mount Massive (Leadville/Aspen) and Cloud Peak (north-central Wyoming) wilderness areas.

daler@durangoherald.com

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