ASPEN - A plan to tackle habitat and recreation improvements on more than 4,000 acres of national forest, in an area known locally as Aspen's backyard, is nearly ready for formal, environmental review.
The Hunter Creek-Smuggler Mountain Cooperative Plan is slated for one last public look, at a Jan. 9 open house. Then its drafters intend to submit it for what, under typical circumstances, likely would be an arduous review that elicits plenty of conflicting comment and dissension.
But, with 18 months of upfront input from the public, recreation and conservation groups, fire managers and local governments, the plan's authors hope they've worked through most of the potential objections in advance.
Usually, the U.S. Forest Service would come up with proposals and let the public have at them, said Aspen District Ranger Scott Snelson during a meeting with Pitkin County commissioners last week.
"Everyone would have a chance to weigh in by complaining," he said.
Instead, in a process spearheaded by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, the complaints have been addressed before launching the environmental analysis required by the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA review is required to consider potential environmental impacts before decisions or actions involving federal lands occur.
"Instead of beating ourselves up in the NEPA process, we've tried to engage the interests up front," said Chris Lane, CEO of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. "No one's going to get everything they want in this process, but everyone's going to get something."
"I think we've ironed out most of the wrinkles," Snelson agreed. "I think we've taken care of most of the issues so far as I can see."
The plan - it can be downloaded at www.hunter-smugglerplan.com - proposes more than 800 acres of potential forest-restoration projects that also can improve wildlife habitat and reduce wildfire danger. The scope of what's proposed makes it meaningful for forest health and wildlife, according to Snelson.
On the recreation front, it proposes 1.7 fewer miles of trail overall by closing off redundant routes but also identifies opportunities for new trail connections. It also proposes improved signs to direct trail users on the various routes in the Smuggler, Hunter Creek and Van Horn Park areas on the edge of Aspen and the creation of better maps.
A Heritage Trail that allows exploration of the mining and homesteading relics in the area is proposed, as is establishing a new singletrack loop in the Hunter Creek Valley for beginning mountain bikers as well as hikers. The plan also calls for exploring the potential for a singletrack mountain-biking trail on the south side of Smuggler Mountain, where users have created the unauthorized bandit route known as the Balcony Trail.
The Balcony Trail was built without Forest Service approval or evaluation of impacts on wildlife or other resources, but the plan acknowledges the desire for such a route. The plan proposes exploring an alignment that might or might not use parts of the Balcony Trail and restoring problem parts of the existing trail to their natural state. An environmental review would include a "no trail" option in the area, the plan notes.
The trail, however, is among the elements of the plan that is likely to prevent smooth sailing through the environmental review.
Local conservation group Wilderness Workshop, while supporting most of the cooperative plan and praising the input that has gone into it in advance of the environmental analysis, has raised issues with some proposals. The group has suggested modifications to the treatment plans for lodgepole pines and aspen habitat, has raised concerns about the location of the proposed new singletrack loop and warned it is unlikely to support a trail that affects bear and elk habitat on the south side of Smuggler.
"Building a new trail in this area would only condone the illegal construction of new bike trails," Wilderness Workshop said in its comments.
"With something this big, there's bound to be things that everybody doesn't agree on," said Will Roush, conservation advocate with Wilderness Workshop, at last week's meeting.
Following the Jan. 9 open house, to be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Rio Grande Commons in Aspen, a final endorsement to move forward will be asked of county commissioners and the City Council.
Local governments and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies will all be proponents of the plan, Lane explained, and ACES will help fund the environmental review process. ACES also is willing to help fund some of the individual projects that come forward, he said.
If the collaborative process results in a shortened review, ACES would like to analyze the money that was saved by avoiding a lengthy appeals process, Lane added.
"We've made an investment of analysis up front," Snelson said. "Time will tell whether or not the appeals process ends up being costly."