A coalition has constructed a plan intended to get projects back on track to improve forest health and enhance recreation in Aspen’s popular Hunter Creek Valley-Smuggler Mountain area.
Two homegrown conservation groups — Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) and Wilderness Workshop — worked with Pitkin County and the city of Aspen for an agreement on the Hunter Creek-Smuggler Cooperative Plan. The plan is intended to guide projects over the next 20 years that will improve forest health, enhance wildlife habitat, ease fire risk and add trails.
The coalition’s proposal is being examined by the White River National Forest as part of the environmental review required on projects involving federal lands. The Hunter-Smuggler proposed projects cover 4,681 acres of land owned by the city, county and Forest Service.
An initial plan was hashed out by ACES, the city, county and Forest Service with input from a “focus group” that included everyone from the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department to groups representing mountain bikers to Wilderness Workshop.
Wilderness Workshop felt somewhat left out of the process.
“Some of our input was taken but a lot of stuff we felt was important wasn’t (addressed),” said Will Roush, conservation advocate for the organization.
To cover its bases, Wilderness Workshop filed a formal objection on Oct. 21 as part of the Forest Service’s review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“We felt we had to play in that arena,” said Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker. He acknowledged that the 30-page objection was blunt in its criticism of the plan. Wilderness Workshop questioned if the Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan was really a community collaboration.
“To have a voice at the table, you kind of have to come in with sharp elbows,” Shoemaker said. “It got people’s attention.”
The objection initially took the planning team by surprise because they felt it had been a collaborative effort, according to ACES Executive Director Chris Lane. But representatives of the two environmental groups, Aspen and Pitkin County soon met and focused on crafting an agreement rather than pointing fingers.
“What we learned is what we want and what they want aren’t that far apart,” Lane said.
Shoemaker agreed. Both men said the perceived differences were more about poor communication. “Even among friends, communication is difficult,” Shoemaker said.
Lane said the major difference was over the timing for producing details in the Hunter-Smuggler plan. The initial planning team wanted to hash out a general plan and get it approved in the Forest Service’s process, then work on details later.
Wilderness Workshop wanted details nailed down up front. It’s dangerous to wait because the players involved will change and memories of “gentlemen’s agreements” will become hazy, Shoemaker said,
“We are sticklers on process,” Roush said. Wilderness Workshop felt the plan should have specific details on issues such as the corridors where new trails will be considered in Hunter Creek Valley and on Smuggler Mountain and specific locations and goals of forest-thinning projects.
One major point for Wilderness Workshop was protecting wildlife habitat on south Smuggler Mountain. The concern is tied to the Balcony Trail, which was illegally constructed, according to the Forest Service.
The old proposal said there is a clear need for a trail in that vicinity and left the door open for consideration of a trail. The new proposal still leaves the door open for a new trail but demands that important wildlife habitat be off limits for the route. Wilderness Workshop insisted that the Forest Service agree to analyze the impacts before approving any new trail alignment. ACES, the city and county all concurred.
Lane said he believes a better plan resulted from the key players’ meetings after Wilderness Workshop filed its objection. ACES — which is the lead entity on the project — didn’t want to see “analysis paralysis,” he said. And it didn’t want the entire Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan delayed by a fight over the Balcony Trail. ACES is “agnostic” on that trail, he stressed.
ACES, Wilderness Workshop, Aspen and Pitkin County all signed a nine-page agreement and submitted it to the Forest Service. Representatives of all four parties dub it a true collaboration. The agreement doesn’t cover all the points made in Wilderness Workshop’s 30-page objection, but it addresses the major points, Roush said. The nine-page agreement is being touted to the Forest Service as “objection resolution,” Shoemaker said.
The hope is the agreement influences the Forest Service’s final Decision Notice and associated Environmental Assessment on the Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan, according to both Lane and Shoemaker.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said in an email that the Forest Service will respond to Wilderness Workshop’s objection points and “likely reference the agreement letter, noting that the items in the letter may be an avenue for a final decision.” He added that he would use the letter while working on a final decision.
Lane said he is eager to get moving next spring on a project he believes will improve the health of lodgepole pine, aspen and gambol oak.
Nine small areas of vegetation treatment would have been undertaken in fall 2013 “had the project gone without a hitch,” Lane said. Now the agreement has the potential to allow those projects and others to advance in 2014.
“To have a voice at the table, you kind of have to come in with sharp elbows.”