Aspen icon Fritz Benedict’s land and trail gifts on Smuggler Mountain create a conundrum
Aspen legend Fritz Benedict created a conundrum when he contributed a trail and later donated parkland for the public to enjoy on the shoulder of Smuggler Mountain in the early 1990s.
Benedict created a trail on his family’s property in September 1991 to provide an alternative route to the steep, rocky South Hunter Creek Trail.
However, the status of the gift was placed in limbo two years later when his family donated 11 acres of land to the Pitkin County Parks Association, which later became Aspen Valley Land Trust. The land donation came with the stipulation that the property be used “exclusively as a natural park, open space rest area and scenic viewpoint, and for picnicking.” It also included the stipulation that “no roads or trails of any kind shall ever be established or permitted to remain.”
But the restriction on uses was never enforced over the next two years before Benedict’s death. And it has been unenforced in the nearly 20 years since he died. The restriction was unnoticed by Aspen Valley Land Trust until recently, according to Executive Director Martha Cochran. Now, the land trust has no choice but to honor its obligations and close the trail, which has turned into a popular mountain-bike route over 23 years of use. The Land Trust announced Monday that it will close the route later this year.
“It’s not a decision taken lightly,” Cochran said. “It’s always hard to take something away.”
Cochran was aware of the September 1991 Aspen Times article titled, “New trail to access ‘Fritz’s Folly’ Park.” She said she is uncertain that the trail Benedict touted is the trail that ended up on the property, now known as Verena Mallory Park. However, Glenn Horn, a land-use planner who helped the Benedicts prepare the gift of the land, said the trail that now exists is essentially the same one created by Benedict in 1991.
The trail is only about half a mile long and forms a “V” shape, or jug handle, that gets cyclists and hikers, if they prefer, off a short stretch of the South Hunter Creek Trail. Benedict wanted to make the south route more appealing to forest visitors because the community was embroiled in a fight over ownership of the North Hunter Creek Trail. He felt improving the south route would ease pressure to use the north.
Benedict told The Aspen Times that the new trail would be open to all recreation users. If mountain bikers preferred one route over the other, he said he would suggest to Pitkin County officials that one route be marked for hikers and one for bikers.
The trail preferences were never sorted out. Cochran said the Land Trust must enforce stipulations made in the deeding of the parkland in 1993 and not guess at Benedict’s intent.
“It’s so unambiguous,” she said of the agreement. She noted that Benedict signed the documents that gifted the land to the Parks Association. He also was a member of the association’s board of directors at the time, according to Cochran.
Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association issued a letter Tuesday that said the organization’s leadership is “incredibly disappointed to learn that AVLT has decided that abiding by the parcel’s deeds restrictions will require them to close the trail and rehabilitate” the trail.
“We anticipate emotional responses to the loss of this trail, including anger and confusion,” the mountain bike association’s letter said. “While AVLT has identified a remedy to maintain their legal stewardship of the land, we will continue to advocate for common sense solutions that take into account the history, provenance, and function of this trail within the context of the overall system.”
Asked if heirs of the Benedicts could change the stipulations to allow continued used of the trail, if they so desired, Cochran replied, “Legally they could. Ethically we don’t think they can.”
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The Little Nell Hotel Group, a division of Aspen Skiing Co., announced Friday that it purchased seven acres of vacant land at the base of Mammoth Mountain. It plans to build a Limelight hotel and residences. The size hasn’t been disclosed yet.