Forest official: Combine Aspen, Sopris districts
The head of the White River National Forest is recommending the consolidation of the Aspen and Sopris ranger districts.
Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle said the U.S. Forest Service will retain a strong presence in Aspen even if consolidation is approved by the regional forester and officials in Washington, D.C. The agency is taking steps to replace the former district ranger there, Jim Upchurch, who left earlier this month to accept another position.
“There is strong support throughout the Forest Service, from Washington on down, to continue to have a district ranger presence in Aspen,” said Ketelle.
But she believes the role for the Forest Service is evolving in Aspen. Instead of employing a full administrative work crew in the town, the federal agency will concentrate on services like greeting tourists, patrolling trails, maintaining facilities at the Maroon Bells and working with the Aspen Skiing Co.
Other traditional services, such as administering timber sales and grazing permits, aren’t necessary any longer in the Aspen office. It signifies the town’s complete 50-year transformation from a mountain town where people scratched a living from the earth to a pure resort town.
“There is a greater need for employees farther down the valley,” she said.
While nothing is definitive, Ketelle said it would be possible to remodel or rebuild the Forest Service administrative office on the S-curves in Aspen. A tourist information center could be included with that building or it could be relocated, possibly paired with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s tourist representatives.
A consolidation could have bigger impacts on Carbondale, where the Sopris District is headquartered. Ketelle noted that the Forest Service owns property in downtown Carbondale and at the old Mount Sopris Tree Farm in El Jebel.
The Forest Service is exploring the possibility of selling the downtown property. An administrative office, where workers for the combined districts would be stationed, could be built at the old tree nursery, Ketelle said. The Forest Service would also explore the idea of building a visitor contact station in the midvalley.
Ketelle stressed that no decision has been made on whether to retain the facilities in Carbondale or relocate them to the part of the tree farm that the Forest Service retained. She said she understands there is support among Carbondale residents for keeping the office there.
In the big picture, relocating the bulk of workers for the combined district to the midvalley – whether it is Carbondale or El Jebel – makes sense because it allows them to work closer to where they tend to live. Ketelle said the Forest Service has faced a difficult time retaining employees in Aspen because the cost of living is so high. Housing prices force workers to live farther downvalley and commute a long distance.
The high turnover tends to affect the morale of employees who stick around for a longer time, she said.
Ketelle said her recommendation to combine the districts was formed after she collected opinions of employees. She believes the move has a high degree of support and wouldn’t raise turmoil that a restructuring tends to do.
If the districts are combined, Ketelle said the new district would keep the Aspen name because of its worldwide recognition.
No timetable has been set to reach a decision on consolidation although Ketelle believes it needs to be “sooner rather than later” because of the employment issues.
Meanwhile, Sopris District Ranger Bill Westbrook has been named acting Aspen ranger effective June 30. The job will be advertised within the Forest Service over the next two weeks, and the hiring process should be completed within three months.
[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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