For decades, warm water fans have trekked through rain, snow and ice to soak under the stars in the natural pools at Weir Creek Hot Springs just across the Montana border in Idaho. But the days of relaxing under the stars at Weir are over, and soakers who attempt to stay past 8 p.m. may now be ticketed, according to the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests.
National Forest officials implemented the new restrictions at Weir in late November, citing public health and safety concerns and damage to the natural resource, according to a press release from the Forest Service.
The hot springs and surrounding area will be closed from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily under the new restrictions.
“Unfortunately, a significant portion of the visitors to these hot springs do not follow responsible recreation guidelines, and some choose to participate in illegal behavior,” Brandon Knapton, Lochsa-Powell District Ranger, said in the release. “Sanitation, vandalism and natural resource damage complaints are common. These issues range from littering and dispersed camping violations to illegal drug and alcohol use and improper human waste disposal.”
Jennifer Becar, public affairs specialist for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, said the improper disposal of human feces has been a major issue at the hot springs.
“We did install a toilet at the trailhead, but unfortunately, we still find evidence of human defecation along the trail up near the hot springs, which, besides being unpleasant, has the potential to infect that water source, which is a natural resource hazard and a safety hazard,” Becar told Montana Free Press.
Weir Creek and the nearby Jerry Johnson Hot Springs, which are located about 10 minutes down the road, are two easily accessible hot springs in the upper Lochsa River corridor. Both have long been popular destinations for many Montanans.
The Forest Service first announced the changes on Nov. 10 and have been working on public outreach throughout the month. The order is now enforceable, and the decision to issue a fine will be at the discretion of the law enforcement officer handling the situation, Becar said.
“In this initial period, I’d expect that any folks using the hot springs during the closure would be informed of the order and asked to relocate, but it does allow for issuance of a fine,” Becar said.
The new restrictions are posted at the Weir Creek trailhead, along with signs warning visitors that emergency medical services will no longer lend backcountry aid or assistance at the site.
In 1991, the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests placed similar restrictions and an overnight trail closure on Jerry Johnson Hot Springs when impacts of use began to damage resources. The decision to implement restrictions at Jerry Johnson helped to mitigate consequences of the area’s increasing popularity, according to the Forest Service. The existing Jerry Johnson Hot Springs closure will be reissued concurrently with the new Weir closure and restrictions.
Public visitation to Weir Creek Hot Springs has been steadily increasing for years, resulting in the forest and Nez Perce Tribe working together to make improvements to the parking area and install a vault toilet to reduce public health risks and protect natural resources. The Forest Service has also engaged in education and outreach campaigns focused on responsible recreation at the hot springs.
The Forest Service encourages visitors to practice “Leave No Trace” principles, “take only photos, leave only footprints,” and recreate responsibly.
Though outreach efforts have reduced some of the sanitation issues at Weir Creek, the Forest Service said impacts to natural resources have actually increased, along with serious injuries that have often occurred at night.
Wintertime treks to the springs pose obstacles including icy slopes with steep drops down to Weir Creek. A few hours at the hot springs, alcohol, and sometimes illegal substances have contributed to a number of serious injuries that have required the extraction of victims for hospitalization by Forest Service and emergency personnel.
The Lowell Quick Response Unit, a volunteer emergency medical services provider, recently contacted the Forest Service expressing concerns about medical emergencies occurring at the Lochsa Corridor hot springs.
“There has been a distinct increase in 911 calls to these hot springs in the past two years that has required our immediate response,” the unit wrote in the press release. “We are concerned for the safety of the users of the trails at night and in the winter, as well as the safety of our crews that have to hike up these trails and endeavor to carry patients down the trails.”
Federal, state, and local law enforcement and Forest Service staff have also documented an increase in natural resource damages, health and sanitation issues, and legal infractions.
From Jan. 1, to Dec. 14, 2021, the Idaho State Police issued 49 misdemeanor violations for drugs, alcohol and paraphernalia infractions at the hot springs, of a total 108 misdemeanor citations along Highway 12.
“Over the past five years, over 44 incident reports have been documented at Weir Creek Hot Springs by Forest Service law enforcement officers,” Knapton said in the press release. “These span from littering and damage to the vault toilet to possession and use of drugs including cocaine and methamphetamine.”
The Forest Service anticipates that the changes will help mitigate the damage to natural resources, increase the safety of the hot springs and lessen the strain on local law enforcement and emergency services providers.
Becar encouraged soakers to plan ahead for their visit, pack appropriate footwear for the trail, including crampons and shoes with good traction for icy days, and to “pack it out.”
“All of us enjoy these spaces, and we need to do that in a responsible way to keep them available and preserve these areas for future use and enjoyment by everyone,” Becar said.
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