Forest Service eyes plan for midvalley housing, offices
The U.S. Forest Service is working on a plan that would scale back some of its operations in Carbondale and Aspen and beef them up in El Jebel.
The federal agency will begin working on a land-use plan next fall to add a visitors center, office, warehouse and employee housing at the old Mount Sopris Tree Farm in El Jebel, according to Bill Westbrook, the district ranger for the Aspen and Sopris districts. There is no timeline yet for constructing new facilities.
While most of the former tree farm behind the El Jebel Amoco was traded to Eagle County in the mid-1990s, the Forest Service retained 85 acres. The site now has two houses and a bunkhouse as well as a horse pasture and outdoor storage for things like the wooden port-a-potties typically seen in campgrounds.
Eagle County obtained 120 acres. Some of that land was used for the Eagle County government office building and community center. Additional land is being developed by the Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District. The Forest Service’s plan wouldn’t affect the park.
About half of the land the Forest Service retained is wetlands on a bench by the Roaring Fork River. That will be preserved as wildlife habitat, according to Westbrook.
Redeveloping a portion of that 85 acres goes hand in hand with the agency’s plan to consolidate some of the operations of the Aspen and Sopris districts, he said. The Sopris District is based in Carbondale.
The Forest Service is considering selling its office complex and humble visitors center there. Westbrook said the agency would still operate a small, seasonal office and tourist center somewhere in Carbondale after the tree farm is developed.
Offices from Carbondale and Aspen would be consolidated at the tree farm site. Westbrook said the two districts already share personnel so consolidating makes sense. Many workers headed to Aspen commute from downvalley so the proposed office site would shorten their drive. However, some employees would continue to be based in Aspen.
The Aspen District will continue to operate a visitors center even if another is built in the midvalley, according to Westbrook.
The redevelopment of the old tree farm also provides the agency with a golden opportunity to provide more housing. The only way it could provide housing is to use land it owns rather than go out and buy land at market rates, Westbrook said.
Like most employers in the valley, the Forest Service pays the consequences for the steep cost of living.
“We still have a demand to bring new people onto the forest and keep employees here,” Westbrook said.
The Aspen and Sopris districts currently house four employees at the tree farm, one in Basalt and three in Aspen. Westbrook said it hasn’t been determined yet how many housing units would be built at the tree farm. There is a chance that land would be made available – through a lease, not a sale – to other interested parties.
The Forest Service held a meeting recently to discuss housing opportunities with the Roaring Fork School District, Eagle County and a nonprofit organization called Healthy Mountain Communities.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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