Aspen Times series: Challenges grow, funds shrink in Aspen’s public forest lands
ASPEN – On a warm morning in August, two backpackers started the trudge up the Thomas Lakes Trailhead on the lower slopes of Mount Sopris. Environmental issues were the farthest things from their minds, but within an hour they stumbled across signs of some of the biggest issues facing the national forest surrounding Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley.
After walking 15 minutes, they stepped off the trail to let four mountain bikers pass. The cyclists huffed and puffed up the sandy route, carefully picking their way along the one clearly defined path through the rocks.
The trail is closed to summer motorized uses, but it is still a superhighway on some mornings with day hikers tackling Mount Sopris, backpackers bound for Thomas Lakes, equestrians out for a backcountry stroll and mountain bikers cranking along the popular Hay Park loop.
Sheer numbers produce conflicts, even when people from various user groups are polite with one another.
The White River National Forest attracts an estimated 9.2 million visitors annually. That figure, according to the U.S. Forest Service, makes it one of the most popular national forests in the country.
The bulk of the activity – more than 7 million visits – occurs when skiers and snowboarders from around the world visit the 12 private ski resorts leasing public lands for their operations. But the Forest Service figures that 2 million annual visits are racked up by people doing something other than alpine skiing. Those visitors are often crammed into the same popular areas at the same popular times.
“There are times you go to the Maroon Bells Wilderness and you run into hundreds and hundreds of people,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, White River National Forest supervisor.
The sprawling forest, which stretches from Rifle to the west to Summit County to the east and from north of Glenwood Springs to south of Aspen, hosts more visitors than Yellowstone National Park, he noted.
“We can’t say the trends we’re seeing now are sustainable,” Fitzwilliams said.
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As the backpackers negotiated the gentle switchbacks of the Thomas Lake Trail, they stopped to catch their breath after popping out of the woods and into a clearing. They gazed at the dark timber to the north. The wooded hillside has an odd sort of leopard print. The deep green of healthy trees surrounds rusty blotches – telltale signs that show where lodgepole pine trees died after getting attacked by beetles.
The Aspen area is on the southern-most edge of the area where a mountain pine beetle epidemic struck. About 4 million acres of forests in Colorado and southeastern Wyoming have been hammered since 1996. Pitkin County didn’t get hit as hard as Eagle and Summit counties, its neighbors to the north and east, where swathes of trees turned rust-colored and, ultimately, ashen gray. Pitkin County has a greater diversity of tree species, according to silviculturists with the U.S. Forest Service, so the attack wasn’t as intense. Nevertheless, the epidemic is already making its mark in hundreds of tree stands at the base of Mount Sopris, up the Fryingpan Valley, on Smuggler Mountain and elsewhere in the Roaring Fork River basin.
The White River National Forest received $10.6 million for projects to offset the destruction caused by the bark beetle infestation in 2010. That was 37 percent of the forest’s entire budget of $28.57 million.
• • • •
The backpackers stuck to the Hay Park Trail instead of peeling off on a spur to the popular Thomas Lakes. It was late morning, so all the desirable campsites near the lakes were taken. They headed for West Sopris Creek Valley, one drainage over, a little visited spot under the looming false summit of the eastern most peak of Mt. Sopris.
As they followed the bends of the Hay Park Trail, the backpackers stared out at forest lands near a divide called Hay Park that were once considered suitable to lease for natural gas extraction. Fitzwilliams’ office is completing an oil and gas analysis that reassesses what lands should be made available for lease. The proposal will place a stipulation of “no surface occupancy” on roughly 141,000 acres of officially inventoried roadless lands. In other cases, lands will be administratively removed from eligibility for leasing. Land around Hay Park falls in that category.
Other lands, such as Thompson Divide in far western Pitkin County, have already been partially leased, to the chagrin of conservationists.
Some people don’t want the natural characteristics of the land to change, and that’s very understandable, Fitzwilliams said. To them, the natural values trump the economic values. Nevertheless, the Forest Service is bound by existing laws and rules to make some areas available for lease.
“There’s no way I can make everybody happy on this one,” Fitzwilliams said.
• • • •
Moving to their destination in West Sopris Creek Valley, up a secluded, box valley, the backpackers encountered scores of cows and calves. The yearlings were curious and approached the hikers out of curiosity. They had to be shooed away. The calves, just a few months old, were more skittish and kept close to their moms.
The cattle turned the usually beautiful little valley into a mowed pasture spotted with cow pies. It’s a user conflict with no villains. The backpackers went where the cows were located for the summer, and they had a diminished backcountry experience.
A few decades ago, cattle or sheep were stuffed into every canyon where there was enough grass for them to graze. The Roaring Fork River basin was “one giant pasture,” Fitzwilliams said.
But Aspen’s transformation into a high-end resort was tough on the long-term viability of the ranching industry. Ranchers can’t compete with real estate developers, so ranches that go on the market often end up as high-end residential subdivisions rather than staying in agriculture. Thus, the need for summer grazing allotments has decreased.
The amount of Forest Service land in the Aspen and Sopris ranger districts open to domestic livestock grazing has dropped from about 33 percent over the last quarter century, according to Wayne Ives, range manager for the Forest Service.
In addition to battling economic forces, some ranchers must contend with the transformation of the “Old West” – dominated by ranching, logging and mining – to the “New West,” which is dominated by hikers, mountain bikers and off-road enthusiasts. Ranchers in some areas have declined to use traditional summer pasture because of conflicts, such as gates being left open by hikers and bikers.
Keeping cows and hikers happy is the least of the Forest Service’s worries. The White River National Forest faces several major management issues – from user conflicts to growing pressure from the oil and gas industry. Finding the funds to undertake them all is expected to get tougher, given the federal budget crisis.
“The budget forecast is bleak, really bleak,” Fitzwilliams said.
Jerry Gerbaz remembers the days when he would play on the dirt road that would eventually become Highway 82 in front of his family’s midvalley ranch roughly 10 miles west of Aspen. Vehicles were few and far between.
Gerbaz, 73, still lives on a corner of the ranch his grandparents started homesteading in 1897. It’s an understatement to say he’s seen a lot of changes in the valley and the surrounding White River National Forest.
He recalls an era when more sheep and cattle populated the national forest than well-heeled skiers or thrill-seeking mountain bikers visited it.
Gerbaz used to help take his family’s 1,000 ewes and their lambs up to federal grazing allotments in the Rocky Fork and Chapman areas in the Fryingpan Valley prior to construction of Ruedi Reservoir. They would guide their flock up Woody Creek, through Lenado and over to the Fryingpan Valley in mid-June.
“We’d never see anyone,” Gerbaz said.
National forest use in the 1940s, ’50s and even into the ’60s was largely utilitarian. The valley floor was full of working ranches and virtually all of them had permits to graze their cattle, sheep or both in summer pastures on public lands.
While Aspen’s reputation as an international ski resort was growing, industrial-strength tourism hadn’t hit yet. Aspen was so little known while Gerbaz was growing up that the Maroon Bells were advertised as a place of stunning beauty “approximately 40 miles from Glenwood Springs,” he recalled.
Now, of course, Aspen is an internationally famous resort and recreation reigns supreme.
“The U.S. Forest Service was a land of many uses. Now it’s the land of no uses,” Gerbaz said.
He doesn’t mean it as a criticism of the agency. “It’s just a fact of life,” he said. The valley changed and with it came changes in how the public lands around it are used.
Gerbaz said the Forest Service is “doing all right” with management of the national forest. He understands the need to protect special areas with the wilderness designation, which prohibits motorized and mechanized uses. The designation prohibits everything from mountain bikes to Jeeps.
“I enjoy people up there hiking and having fun,” he said. But Gerbaz also said there needs to be playgrounds for snowmobiles and motorized vehicle enthusiasts, as long as they stay on trails.
He remains excited that people want to visit and move to the Roaring Fork Valley, and enjoy its outdoor offerings. The White River National Forest is a vast place that can handle the pressure, as long as it is managed appropriately, he said.
“I love this country just as much now as I did then,” Gerbaz said, referring to the days of his youth. “The mountains are still here. The rivers are still here.”
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Had Hailey Swirbul decided against going to Europe, she would not have finished with a career-best result in Friday’s World Cup opener. Yes, there was a time, and not long ago, when the U.S. ski team member and Roaring Fork Valley native questioned her desire to put on a race bib.