The U.S. Forest Service gave final approval Wednesday to a plan that authorizes new and improved trails in the Hunter Creek-Smuggler area as well as tree thinning to improve forest health over the next 20 years.
The Hunter Creek-Smuggler Cooperative Plan was approved by Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer after two years of discussions with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, Pitkin County, the city of Aspen and Wilderness Workshop. The plan will be implemented in a 4,681-acre area on Aspen’s east and northeast side that sees some of the most intensive outdoor use. It’s heavily used by mountain bikers and hikers.
“This was a challenging yet thoughtful process,” Schroyer wrote in her decision. “All parties involved in the planning process will benefit from this project. Most important, the public will experience noticeable benefit from implementation of this project. Wildlife species will gain improved habitat. Recreationists will gain new and improved trails while resource conditions are addressed for land managers. The community will gain from the educational opportunities the project area will have to offer within this area.”
A variety of projects are authorized by the plan over the next 20 years. An implementation team will determine the order in which the projects are tackled.
On the trail front, one major approval is rerouting the middle of Sunnyside Plunge as well as the lower Plunge below the Hunter Creek Toll Road. A new trail connection was approved for what’s labeled the Hummingbird Traverse and Hunter Ditch Loop. A reroute and separation of trails for bikers and hikers was approved in the Iowa Shaft area on the northern shoulder of Smuggler Mountain.
Schroyer’s decision implements a compromise hammered out among the major parties on one of the more controversial details of the plan. It will allow the construction of a trail on the south side of Smuggler Mountain as long as the implementation team, Forest Service planners and interested parties can agree on the route.
The unauthorized Bench Trail was unpopular with Wilderness Workshop and other conservationists because it went through habitat for black bears and other wildlife. Wilderness Workshop filed an objection to the proposed final plan last year. The inclusion of a trail on the south side of Smuggler Mountain was among its objections. The Forest Service agreed to do more analysis of the resources affected when considering the trail. The final plan doesn’t authorize a specific alignment. Schroyer said she couldn’t put a timetable on the possible construction of the trail.
“It’s not going to happen this year, I can tell you that,” she said.
The plan also approves vegetation treatment projects designed to improve forest health and wildlife habitat. In 2014, forest thinning and treatment is authorized on nearly 10 acres, mostly on the south side of Smuggler Mountain Road. No new permanent roads will be allowed, but the forest thinning will require construction of about one mile of skid tracks. They will be closed, treated and returned to their natural state after the forest-health projects so that they aren’t used.
In the bigger picture on forest health, the plan authorizes “patch cuts” on 220 acres within 1,080 acres of lodgepole pine stands that have high to moderate risk of disease or bark-beetle infestation.
Elsewhere, 80 acres of mechanical treatment was approved on 1,200 acres of mixed conifer trees facing a moderate risk of disease. There also will be patch cuts on 280 acres within 1,400 acres of aspen tree stands.
The plan said most of the materials cut down would be removed by helicopter because of the steepness of terrain and desire to minimize damage from temporary roads.
Much of the forest-management work will be carried out in the fall to reduce disruption to wildlife, Schroyer said, but that comes at a price. Recreation will be affected at times.
“In terms of disturbance, there is going to be some of that,” she said.
The Forest Service’s Final Decision Notice and Finding of No Significant Impact is the final administrative step for the Hunter Creek-Smuggler Cooperative Plan. Any objecting party would have to file a lawsuit to try and force changes.
Schroyer said she believes it is a solid plan because it employed a collaborative process among interested parties and it implements adaptive management. If conditions change in the future, the plan is flexible to change with them, she said.
All of the details of the plan can be found at www.fs.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsinternet/!ut/p/c4/04_SB8K8xLLM9MS SzPy8xBz9CP0os3hvXxMjMz8Dc0P_kFALA09zLzNDowAXYwMLE_2CbEd FANocRhE!/?project=41413.
“Recreationists will gain new and improved trails while resource conditions are addressed for land managers.”
Hunter Creek-Smuggler Cooperative Plan