Forest Service rejects road proposal from homeowners on Red Mountain
The U.S. Forest Service has rejected a proposal that would have allowed Red Mountain homeowners to control access to the north branch of Hunter Creek Road.
The proposal, called a settlement offer, would have allowed Red Mountain homeowners to specify the location and width of the road through their property and, to a degree, control travel on it.
In a 1998 U.S. District Court decision, Judge Zita L. Weinshienk ruled that both the north and south Hunter Creek roads were public roads owned by Pitkin County. Along with the county, the Forest Service, some private citizens and a group called Friends of Hunter Creek were on the winning side.
But Weinshienk’s decision did not specify the location, width or type of maintenance appropriate for the road, so those issues remain unresolved. The settlement offer, proposed late last year, was aimed at resolving those issues. The Red Mountain homeowners have floated similar settlement proposals periodically since before the court decision, said Charles Hopton, a Friends of Hunter Creek member.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul J. Johns responded on behalf of the Forest Service in a letter dated Jan. 31, rejecting the settlement offer. Johns wrote that it would have restricted access by both the public and Forest Service personnel. The Forest Service, he wrote, and not private citizens, should regulate access to national forest land beyond the private property boundary.
In addition, there appears to be no reason the Forest Service would want to acquiesce to the landowners’ proposal.
“As I see it, we won, so why give up any of that?” asked Allan Grimshaw, a land and minerals specialist for the Forest Service’s Aspen Ranger District.
Johns’ letter cites four problems the Forest Service has with the proposal. The agreement would have allowed the homeowners to realign part of the road and limit it to a 12-foot-wide road with steep grades. That would have limited the size and type of equipment that could be brought in for fire control and what the letter refers to as “ecosystem management.”
The proposal would have prohibited all forms of commercial use on the road. Johns wrote that the Forest Service objects to this provision because it would prevent the agency from allowing permitted guides to haul horses into the national forest. The agency finds that too restrictive.
Johns also objected to a provision in the agreement that specified that the road would be owned by the homeowners and used by the public only by means of an easement. This is contrary to Judge Weinshienk’s ruling that the road is a public road.
Also, although the Forest Service currently agrees with the settlement offer’s proposal to close the road to motorized use, except for licensed big game hunters in hunting season, such a limitation would prevent any future change in forest management policy.
In addition, Grimshaw said, “There was a bunch of little stuff in there that was ridiculous and unacceptable.”
Johns’ letter dismisses the offer, asserting that it would interfere with the agency’s mandate to manage public lands for the public. And Johns also dismisses any future settlement offers:
“It appears that the trend of the negotiations, to allow private citizens to severely limit public access to public lands, is so far afield from what the Forest Service could ever agree to that further discussions along these lines would be fruitless,” he wrote.
Shortly after Judge Weinshienk’s decision three years ago, Pitkin County and the Friends of Hunter Creek filed a motion “to amend the court’s findings and to make additional findings.” This motion was intended to prompt Weinshienk to determine the exact route of the road through the Red Mountain subdivision. But to this point, she has not chosen to do so.
Her 1998 decision urges the parties to submit to the court what they believe is the correct alignment of the road through the subdivision. Hopton said the county and the Friends of Hunter Creek hired a surveyor and did just that, but the Red Mountain homeowners never submitted a proposed alignment.
Hopton said he believes the parties to the suit will have to request what’s known as a “status conference” to urge Judge Weinshienk to rule on the location of the road.
Some members of the Friends of Hunter Creek actually offered their support to the settlement offer, Hopton said. But their desire was not to turn over control of the road to the homeowners, but to keep the Forest Service from gaining too much control and commercializing the area.
“With what’s going on at Maroon Lake,” Hopton said, “there are people who are concerned that the same thing will happen in Hunter Creek.”
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