ASPEN - A "bandit trail" on Smuggler Mountain that's growing in popularity among mountain bikers could be closed as early as next month, according to the Aspen Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service.
The Balcony Trail was illegally constructed over the past two years in the White River National Forest without prior discussion with the Forest Service, said Martha Moran, recreation specialist with the Aspen office.
"We were thinking of signing it and using cameras and closing it off," Moran said. The cameras would be used to try to identify anyone using the closed trail.
No plan will be finalized until after the Aspen staff meets with the law enforcement branch of the national forest to prioritize how enforcement officers will spend their limited time, Moran said. There is a chance the Forest Service will also investigate who constructed the trail and pursue enforcement action, she said.
The Balcony Trail has become a skirmish connected to the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal. In a presentation to the Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday, Gems proponent Sloan Shoemaker said the illegal trail is an example of why more Wilderness is necessary. If greater protections aren't added, demands for new routes by mountain bikers, dirt bikers and other users of motorized vehicles will lead to further fragmentation of public lands, said Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop.
After the commissioners' meeting, he said that Wilderness Workshop staff members scouted the trail this summer to gather GPS coordinates and map the route. The information was recently turned over to the Forest Service, and a Wilderness Workshop member accompanied a forest ranger to the trail.
The Balcony Trail is in an area that conservation groups want added as Wilderness as part of the Hidden Gems proposal. The trail, on the south side of Smuggler Mountain, is a single-track route that climbs from a prominent spot on the mountain.
Wilderness Workshop's primary concern is that the trail "is just friggin' illegal," Shoemaker said. The trail goes through lands that are severe winter range for elk and a calving area in spring. It is also foraging area for bears and habitat for countless other species of wildlife, according to Shoemaker.
While mountain biking might not affect habitat in the winter, the general use threatens to degrade its value as habitat, he said.
Shoemaker was disappointed that the trail was allegedly cut by mountain bikers over the same period that Hidden Gems organizers were negotiating with cyclists over lands to be designated as Wilderness.
"This community is out of control," Shoemaker said. "This community needs to do some soul-searching."
He later amended his comment to target a certain segment of the mountain biking community. He said he wasn't making a blanket statement about all mountain bikers.
Shoemaker alleged that the people who built the trail tried to obscure its entry/exit for an undetermined time and keep secret the illegal use of public land as a private benefit.
"It backfired on them, and it's going to get shut down," he said.
Moran said trail construction must go through a thorough Forest Service review process under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Issues such as the need for the trail and its affects on the environment would be assessed, she said. If approved, the trail would be properly engineered so it is sustainable and has minimal effect on the surrounding environment. That process requires time, she said.
Numerous trails were illegally constructed in the 1990s on the slopes flanking the Hunter Creek Valley, including Smuggler Mountain, but the vast majority of them were legalized by the Forest Service as part of its forest plan, a management guide for the forest and in a draft of a travel management plan.
But the timing doesn't work to legalize the Balcony Trail anytime soon. No Forest Service plan is in the works to accommodate the trail.