After flirting with a second confrontation in 60 days, the parties working on a plan to nurture Aspen’s favorite outdoor playground say they finally have ironed out their differences.
Both the environmental group Wilderness Workshop and the U.S. Forest Service flexed their muscles during the planning process. Now, both sides said they are optimistic an agreement will be worked out soon after the new year.
“These are the growing pains of true collaboration,” said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. “We will get to a place where everybody can feel good about this project. I wasn’t sure of that at the beginning of (Tuesday’s) meeting.”
In a nutshell, here’s what happened:
• The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, the city of Aspen, Pitkin County and the Aspen Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service worked out a proposal for improving forest health, enhancing recreation and providing education in the Hunter Creek Valley and on Smuggler Mountain, popular recreation areas on the outskirts of Aspen. The plan covers 4,681 acres owned by the federal and local governments.
• Wilderness Workshop felt its suggestions were largely ignored in the Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan. It filed a formal objection Oct. 21 to the Forest Service’s draft Environmental Assessment and draft Notice of Decision. The objection raised eyebrows among many observers because the project is ACES’ baby and it was facing a challenge from a typically allied conservation group.
• Soon after the objection was filed, Wilderness Workshop met with representatives of ACES and the local governments, and they reached an agreement on 13 key points. A letter signed by all parties was submitted to the Forest Service urging the agency to adopt the recommended changes to the Hunter-Smuggler plan.
• Fitzwilliams responded Dec. 18 with a formal response that rejected many of the objection points and suggestions from the agreement letter. “I believe this project was completed in the spirit and intent of collaboration and public input was significantly incorporated into the analysis,” Fitzwilliams wrote. In other words, he felt the parties crafted a solid plan prior to Wilderness Workshop’s objection.
• Wilderness Workshop staff members were initially disappointed by the Forest Service response. They said in an interview Friday that the Forest Service was “ignoring good collaboration.” Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker said the organization was “looking at all options,” including litigation, but he stressed that he held out hope that Fitzwilliams would meet with them to try to resolve the differences.
• Wilderness Workshop’s Shoemaker and Will Roush met with ACES Executive Director Chris Lane and Fitzwilliams on Tuesday evening. Fitzwilliams said they agreed that the differences weren’t so great that the project should be delayed or significantly altered. “I don’t think this is going to change the project,” he said. Roush said Wilderness Workshop no longer feels ignored by the Forest Service.
The differences are, by and large, details that likely would make the eyes of most observers gloss over. Lane said Wilderness Workshop wants a higher level of specific conditions spelled out in the agreement before the project starts.
For example, Wilderness Workshop wants wildlife habitat ruled out for a possible route for a mountain-bike trail on the south side of Smuggler Mountain. The Forest Service thought that was implied in its wording.
Wilderness Workshop wanted the plan to state clearly that no new, permanent roads would be constructed while aspen and lodgepole pine stands are thinned to improve forest health. Fitzwilliams said that was a given and that ACES, Wilderness Workshop, Pitkin County and Aspen would be effective watchdogs that wouldn’t allow permanent roads.
The parties will meet again soon after the holidays to drive the bedeviling differences out of the details. If they are successful, Lane said work could begin before the winter ends. There were nine small areas of vegetation treatment planned, each smaller than 2 acres, in 2013, he said. They were delayed when the “speed bumps” arose over the plan, he said.
“It’s a process that just takes time,” Lane said.
Details of the project are available at www.fs.fed.us/nepa/fs- usda-pop.php/?project=41413.