Aspen environmental center goes with the flow at Spring Creek |

Aspen environmental center goes with the flow at Spring Creek

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

FRYINGPAN VALLEY – If the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies nature preserve at Hallam Lake is one of the town’s best-kept secrets, ACES’ Spring Creek property is off the map.

The unusual parcel, located off the Eagle-Thomasville Road in the upper Fryingpan River Valley, had seen little activity since ACES acquired the parcel at the close of 2009. That’s no longer the case.

While the organization works to increase the profile of its programs at the Hallam Lake preserve – a place where elk have calved on the edge of downtown Aspen, according to executive director Chris Lane – and embarks upon an ambitious plan to restore the ecosystem and create a model of sustainable agriculture at its Rock Bottom Ranch property near Basalt, plans for little-known Spring Creek constitute a long-term vision. But what a vision.

The property boasts a natural spring, giving rise to its former use as a privately owned trout farm. Fish are in its future, as well, but in keeping with ACES’ educational mission, president and chief ecologist Tom Cardamone gushes about its possibilities as a place to teach ecosystem and species restoration and to tap the land’s natural features for lessons in green-energy technology.

The first step, though, was getting rid of the swimming pools.

ACES acquired the 160-acre parcel as a gift from Drs. Richard Timmer and Marilyn Rice, who had owned the property since 1965 and ran an ingenious trout-rearing operation that involved rows of backyard-style swimming pools of various sizes. Water from the spring fed a series of small pools; when the trout got big enough, they were transferred via connecting pipes to larger pools. In a meadow on a lower bench of the sloping property, four rubber-lined, earthen ponds are all that remain of the operation.

The plastic swimming pools have been discarded and the metal ones recycled. Thirty-one pools of differing sizes are gone, and the area that had been the heart of the trout operation has been graded into a flat expanse of dirt. A lined ditch carries water from the spring across the site.

Last week, a small crew was at work on the source of the spring water, which flows out of the rock and tumbles down a talus slope. Deteriorating plastic lining (some of it bright blue) and white PVC pipe have been removed, and new lining, to be aesthetically covered in the limestone rock that litters the slope, is being installed.

Without the liner, the water would disappear into the porous rock, said Martin Ogle, this summer’s caretaker at the property.

“It’ll be pretty, but it also makes it so you can capture and use the water,” he said, cupping his hand for a drink at the source of the spring. A pipe carries some of the water to his cabin for his family’s consumption.

This summer’s work has been about a $50,000 investment for the nonprofit ACES, according to Cardamone. Next will come survey and engineering work so an application can be submitted to Eagle County for restoration of the site at an estimated cost of $300,000 to $400,000, he said.

The vision is a series of spring-fed, natural-looking pools that spill down the hillside to the meadow where the old ponds remain. The facility would become a repository for Colorado River native cutthroat, as is Hallam Lake in Aspen.

“In the deal, (Timmer) did not require us to be raising fish, but he encouraged that,” Cardamone said. “We’re committed to developing a series of ponds.”

And as it turns out, water from “Big Spring,” as the natural spring is known, is ideal for that endeavor. It provides water year-round at a constant 58 degrees or so, and trout, instead going dormant in the cold water of winter, keep growing, gaining size at twice the typical rate, according to Cardamone.

Use of the property for rearing trout apparently dates back to the late 1930s, he said.

Camping and “eco-tourism”

Timmer’s operation provided trout to stock other private waters – nearby Woods Lake, for example – but he also envisioned an opportunity to provide camping in the lower meadow, where visitors could fish for trout.

“We’re still thinking about how that might work,” Cardamone said. “It’s a connection to nature that’s very tangible and real.”

Tent platforms in the meadow would allow camping in sort of an “eco-tourism” mold, he said.

“You get an experience that’s beyond simple tourism,” Cardamone said. “You come away from it inspired to do something about stewardship of the earth.”

He sees Spring Creek as a place where graduate students and professors could do research in species restoration – not just of trout but perhaps of lynx or the boreal toad, for example.

With three creeks, including Spring Creek (separate from the spring itself) and Lime Creek, flowing through the property, there are opportunities for hydroelectric power along with solar power and heat-pump technology.

“It has the potential to be the site where we gain the most efficiency in being carbon-neutral,” Cardamone said.

Spring Creek’s future aside, ACES also has embraced the property’s past. The spring was significant to early inhabitants of the area – the Utes – and elders of the tribe have been consulted.

“We recognize the importance of that site to the Utes and are engaging them in our planning,” Cardamone said.

Plans for Spring Creek, however, aren’t likely to come to fruition anytime soon. ACES is focused on Rock Bottom Ranch first, and fundraising will be critical to advancements at Spring Creek.

“We have very little funding to make that dream come true,” Lane said of the Spring Creek vision.

Cardamone, however, has been spending considerable time at the property lately, and his excitement about its potential is palpable.

“I’m particularly fond of that property,” he said. “It’s going to be so responsive to restoration because of all that water.”

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