The U.S. Forest Service this summer will launch an extensive study of the Mineral Creek watershed west of Silverton, an area that has been bombarded in recent years with campers and hikers headed up the Ice Lakes Trail.
Lorena Williams, spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said watershed assessments look at a variety of issues, including the ecosystem of a region, impacts from recreation, grazing, invasive species, beetle kill and more.
“It’s for the whole watershed,” she said. “It’s truly an assessment to gain a better understanding of the makeup and health of an entire watershed as a functioning ecosystem.”
Once completed, the assessment will serve as a reference document for public land managers when making decisions about the landscape, such as whether to allow camping in certain areas.
“It’s basically designed to inform a land management agency so they can make better decisions for that landscape,” Williams said.
The study could not come at a more opportune time for Mineral Creek, a tributary of the Animas River, which has seen unprecedented numbers of visitors camping and hiking in the area.
“There are a lot of things going on, like how busy the Ice Lakes Trail has gotten, so the Forest Service is starting to look at how it can address high usage,” Williams said. “And a document like a watershed assessment can help.”
In recent years, South Mineral Road, a Forest Service road about 6 miles west of Silverton that follows South Mineral Creek, has become a hotbed for camping, both in established campgrounds and at dispersed sites.
But increasingly, more people are camping in off-limit areas, disregarding and even moving blockades. And the road itself has become completely chaotic, San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad said in a previous interview.
“The numbers are just continuing to escalate out there,” Conrad said. “It’s out of hand.”
The main attraction in the area – the Ice Lakes Trail – saw skyrocketing use this past summer.
In years past, on a busy day, more than 200 hikers would make the trek to the lakes. This year, however, with more people taking to the outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, a typical day could see anywhere from 400 to 600 hikers.
All the impacts associated with such high visitation – damage to vegetation, erosion, litter, human waste – have prompted the Forest Service to seek a permit system for the trail.
Jed Botsford, recreational staff officer for the Forest Service’s Columbine Ranger District, said the agency is working internally to begin the process of instituting a permit system, and it remains unclear if it will be in place this summer.
As an added caveat, the Ice Lakes Trail and some surrounding spots are closed for the indefinite future after the Ice Fire in October severely damaged the area, which land managers say is going to bring a host of new issues next summer. The cause of the Ice Fire remains under investigation, a Forest Service spokeswoman said this week. Fire officials, however, have said previously they suspect the blaze was human caused.
The watershed assessment also comes at a time when the Environmental Protection Agency is aiming to clean up 48 mining-related sites around Silverton, in what’s known as the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.
Peter Butler, a co-founder of the now defunct Animas River Stakeholders Group, said the group carried out a number of cleanup projects on mine sites around Mineral Creek, vastly improving water quality.
As a result of the stakeholder group’s efforts, the level of zinc and copper was reduced by 70%, and cadmium was cut in half. In 2016, trout were found in a stretch of Mineral Creek, likely the first time fish were there in 100 years.
“There’s not an enormous amount (of mine cleanup work) you can do in Mineral Creek,” Butler said.
There are a few mine sites around Mineral Creek in the EPA’s Superfund, namely the Bandora Mine, which will be addressed this summer, and the Brooklyn Mine, which the Forest Service has been working at the past few years.
Katherine Jenkins, spokeswoman for EPA, said the agency will communicate with the Forest Service as the watershed assessment proceeds, and evaluate how the information it is collecting aligns with our work at the Superfund site.
“We look forward to future conversations on the scope of their effort and what data might be relevant to (the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site),” she said.
Ben Martinez, the abandoned mine lands program lead for the San Juan National Forest, said the watershed assessment is a more “holistic approach” to look at the long-term stability of an ecosystem.
Around Mineral Creek, there are a number of iron fens, a rare type of wetland, there’s a collection of abandoned mine sites, numerous geologic formations and potential avalanche paths that can alter the landscape.
Putting together all these pieces is part of the Forest Service’s task.
“It’s not just one thing,” Martinez said. “It’s really about doing the science to inform decision makers.”
Jimbo Buickerood with San Juan Citizens Alliance said a few years ago the conservation group pushed for a Special Management Area designation for South Mineral Creek, which would bring increased protections for the area.
Those efforts, Buickerood said, did not gain traction, but he said measures need to be taken to protect the waters of Mineral Creek, which provide an injection of relatively clean, clear water that helps dilute some of the Animas River’s water quality issues.
“South Mineral Creek is the only functioning headwaters of the Animas River,” he said.
The Forest Service’s Williams was unsure when the watershed assessment would be completed.