Forest Service calls on private sector for help
The U.S. Forest Service has a bold and potentially controversial plan to replace aging administrative offices and provide desperately needed affordable housing in the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys.The plan, if adopted, could change the face of the federal agency in towns like Aspen and Carbondale, on the edge of the White River National Forest. It could result in the demolition of the Forest Service office in Aspen and construction of a new visitors center somewhere in town; the demolition of Sopris District offices in Carbondale and sale of one acre downtown; development of new offices for consolidated Aspen and Sopris districts at the former Mt. Sopris Tree Farm in El Jebel; and development of housing at the tree farm.The proposal hinges on selling or leasing federally owned land to a private developer. The developer would be free to pursue whatever level of development it could earn approval for from local governments.In return for providing the land, the Forest Service would require the developer to provide new administrative facilities for it, where necessary, and construct employee housing. The developer would be responsible for maintaining those facilities.No forest land would be used for the plan. Only administrative sites are being eyed.McInnis back planThe plan is part of a growing push within the Forest Service to seek partnerships with the private sector. A report by a consultant for the White River National Forest said there is little hope of getting enough money from Congress to replace antiquated offices and facilities.”The Forest has become accustomed to ‘making do’ with what it has and retaining every building because resources for new construction have been scare,” said a report by Kormendi/Gardner Partners, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm that specializes in public-private partnerships.The plans has supporters and detractors. U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, a Republican whose district includes Aspen, introduced a bill in Congress yesterday that would let the White River National Forest proceed.Congressional approval is needed to sell Forest Service assets, such as the office buildings and site in Carbondale. McInnis’ bill would also grease the skids for the Forest Service to work with a developer.”This measure would allow the Forest Service to concentrate more of its time and energy on maintaining its forest resources, not decaying buildings,” McInnis said in a prepared statement. “This innovative approach could serve as an example to other National Forests in how to partner with the private sector to address their needs and reduce the burden on the American taxpayer.”Watchdog group waryBut the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, Aspen’s oldest conservation group, is wary of the proposal. Wilderness Workshop director Sloan Shoemaker said he isn’t convinced that selling assets is in the best interests of the Forest Service or the public. He wants Congress to allocate more funds to address the administrative needs of the White River National Forest.The plan, he said, needs to be considered within the context of federal government spending.”We’re blowing money bombing people and neglecting our own forests,” Shoemaker said.He believes the move is ideologically driven as part of the Bush administration’s strategy to dispose of some assets and to “outsource” some duties of the Forest Service and other land-management agencies. Shoemaker also criticized McInnis for introducing legislation that will give the Forest Service clearance to take actions that could have big impacts on Aspen and Carbondale without first collecting input from residents.McInnis regularly touts the need for “local control” on issues, but his bill wouldn’t let Carbondale residents speak their mind about the agency’s leaving town or let Aspenites comment on where they want to see a visitors center.Plans for Aspen, CarbondaleThe Forest Service’s facility master plan, which the McInnis bill identifies as a blueprint for action, suggests that the agency abandon its office, warehouse and dorm housing at Seventh and Hallam streets in Aspen. That site could be leased but not sold to a developer, the plan said.Administrative offices would be closed in Aspen and relocated to new proposed facilities in El Jebel. The Forest Service would still operate a visitors center in Aspen – one ideally located closer to the airport or downtown, the consultant’s report said. The Forest Service hasn’t ruled out keeping a visitors center at its current site.Carbondale would be the big loser under the proposal. The 5,500-square-foot district office and surrounding buildings next to the town swimming pool would be closed and the site sold.Proceeds would be used to develop new offices and housing at the old tree nursery in El Jebel, where the Forest Service owns 29 acres. The consultant’s report suggested that 20 acres at the tree farm could be sold to a developer for a project with private and public components.The Forest Service would lease back office space at El Jebel. The consultant’s report said it could leverage its position as the landowner to secure favorable leases for its office and for housing for its employees.A developer would likely be selected through a competitive bid process, the bill’s language suggests.Blair Jones, a spokesman for McInnis, said the proposal for the public-private partnership and the language for the bill came from the Forest Service. However, the White River National Forest supervisor’s office declined to discuss the proposal, referring questions to McInnis.”We don’t comment on legislation until it becomes final,” said Forest Service spokeswoman Sue Froeschle.The agency has consistently pussyfooted around the issue of abandoning Carbondale.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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