Expansion of Aspen’s John Denver Sanctuary taking shape | AspenTimes.com

Expansion of Aspen’s John Denver Sanctuary taking shape

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – A few weeks ago, the area resembled a small rock quarry, but the expanded portion of the John Denver Sanctuary in Aspen has now taken shape and could be open to the public soon.

On Wednesday, city work crews were busy planting grass and other types of vegetation in and around the muddy areas between the boulders that will brace the newly constructed wetlands area. The reconstructed space – between Rio Grande Park and the traditional sanctuary spot that glorifies the lyrics to many of Denver’s songs – will serve as a stormwater drainage and filtration area for one-third of downtown Aspen’s runoff.

On the site, Parks Director Jeff Woods, Open Space Director Stephen Ellsperman, project manager Scott Chism and others spoke enthusiastically of a project that’s about to come to fruition after more than a decade of planning. Rededication of the sanctuary, which originally opened more than a decade ago is set for 12:30 p.m. on July 1. Annie Denver, the singer-songwriter’s first wife, will speak at the event.

“It’s all a stormwater catch,” Woods said. “It will take one-third of the downtown runoff and deposit it back in the Roaring Fork River, much cleaner. It re-creates an environmental habitat for birds, butterflies, lots of things.”

Woods said he and Annie Denver envisioned expanding to a full 4.5 acres during the initial sanctuary planning stages, which occurred just months after John Denver’s death in October 1997. The core sanctuary area opened in 2000, but a lack of money kept the city from expanding over the years.

Woods and others said the expansion will be a valuable and popular public amenity. A courtyard area designed in conjunction with Theatre Aspen’s improvement project features benches made from half-cut boulders. Wooden bridges offering scenic views will take people over the water, rocks and plants.

And with the re-created wetlands area, the expansion pays homage to Denver’s environmental activism, Woods said. He noted that the area went unused for many years, and now it will serve a purpose.

“We’re doing bioengineering,” Woods said. The city has embarked upon such projects in the past, perhaps the most notable being the Maroon Creek, Jennie Adair, Marolt and Snyder wetlands areas, he said.

Though the summer season promises a severe drought, officials believe it could rain again one day. The area will be able to handle stormwater flowing at a rate of 19 cubic feet per second. The city will have the ability to regulate the flow, and on average, less than 3 cfs will move through the area, Chism said.

“It doesn’t take a whole lot of rain to get this area really wet,” Chism said. Woods added that the boulder placement was designed to handle major storms.

Once the estimated $375,000 project is finished, visitors will be able to walk through the wetlands, using the boulder paths that wind around the area. That is, unless the water is high.

Also on Wednesday, the project foreman was on the eastern end of the project area, moving rocks and dirt with heavy machinery. He was creating a main channel through which much of the runoff will flow.

At the same time that three full-time city employees and 10 seasonal workers worked to get the sanctuary ready, Theatre Aspen’s contractor was busy getting the new box office, lobby and courtyard area up to par. His deadline is June 25, the grand opening for the improved tent facility.

“This used to be a no-man’s land over here,” Woods said. “There were two big holes in the ground, and it was muddy. Now it will serve a purpose.”

“We have an ecological facility in the center of town,” Ellsperman added.

While describing the many facets of the property – flower gardens, waterfalls, streams, native plants, boulder seats, wildflowers, the theater tent – Woods and his team kept envisioning its uses.

“This is going to be a stopping point for many decades to come,” Ellsperman said. “It’s the best of both worlds coming together.”

Woods added that once city workers are finished, the area will take on a life of its own.

“We’re speeding evolution up, putting a framework together for a new wetlands habitat,” he said. “It’s a part of a prescription for restoration.”

The Parks Department manager gave a lot of credit to many other city workers and companies involved in the process. The sanctuary represents most of Phase I of the city’s Rio Grande Park improvement project. Phase II, which involves more stormwater ponds, a restroom facility, a pumping station for irrigation, two bridges and renovated trails, begins later this year.


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