Forest Service plans merger
The U.S. Forest Service will consolidate its districts in Aspen and Carbondale into one, according to White River National Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle.
Ketelle, who recommended the move last year, said Friday that the concept has been approved by the regional and national Forest Service offices. Now formal approval must be granted.
The first effect of consolidation will come at the top. Bill Westbrook, who has been the Sopris district ranger in Carbondale for the past three years, was hired Thursday as the new Aspen district ranger.
Instead of replacing him, the Forest Service will name a deputy ranger to oversee its downvalley operations, Ketelle said. Westbrook will eventually oversee all the duties being currently conducted in Aspen and Carbondale.
The consolidation could result in the Forest Service leaving Carbondale, where its offices and storage yards are located on Main Street. Westbrook said the agency is “leaning” toward building a new office building at the old Mount Sopris Tree Farm in El Jebel. The Forest Service owns about 45 acres there.
The White River National Forest will seek Congressional approval this year to sell its assets in Carbondale and retain the money in the White River National Forest budget, Westbrook said. Ketelle said the Forest Service aims to construct a new building in the midvalley within five years.
Most of the combined staff would be stationed at the midvalley facility. However, the Forest Service would keep a strong presence in Aspen, said Ketelle. There would be still be a visitors’ center, and workers who spend time exclusively upvalley would remain there.
“We’d like to have a new building [in Aspen] but we have to see how far we can stretch the facilities budget,” said Ketelle.
Westbrook said consolidation makes sense because cost-of-living issues are forcing new hires to live farther and farther away from Aspen and often even farther downvalley than Carbondale. The commute to the midvalley is easier for them.
The districts already share workers whenever possible. There are currently 24 employees and two vacancies in the two districts. Numerous seasonal positions are added in the summer to maintain trails and staff facilities in Maroon Creek Valley.
“We don’t have the budgets we used to have to staff every office,” Westbrook explained.
Consolidation also makes sense from the perspective that the Roaring Fork Valley is more unified these days. Like many other businesses, the Forest Service needs an integrated operation rather than separate offices throughout the valley, according to Westbrook.
Ketelle said the Forest Service hasn’t reached a final decision on whether to use its Carbondale site or the El Jebel property for a new office. Some Bondalians don’t want to lose the current facility.
However, the Forest Service property at El Jebel is bigger, more centrally located and has easy access from Highway 82. The Forest Service could build there without disrupting its Carbondale office, then make the switch when construction was completed.
Ketelle said no goal has been set for the timing of the merger.
“We’re sort of in an in-between stage here,” she said. “We have the approval for the consolidation.”
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.
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