Forest Service won’t open visitors’ center at Aspen office this summer
For the first time in decades, the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District won’t have a visitors’ center this summer in its Aspen headquarters at the S-curves.
“We just can’t afford to staff it,” said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. “Everything is tighter, tighter, tighter.”
Specific budget information isn’t available yet for this fiscal year, he said, but he anticipates the trend for a shrinking budget for the White River to continue. The budget for the forest was $18.37 million in 2014, down 18 percent from the year before. Given the fiscal realities, the Forest Service has to set priorities.
“If you keep that (visitors’ center) open, that’s two people you don’t have in the field,” Fitzwilliams said.
The office has been open every summer for decades to answer questions from forest visitors, both Roaring Fork Valley residents and guests. The office provided information on trails to hike, jeep routes to drive and general information on recreational opportunities. Often people would drop in while driving by the highly visible office on Seventh Street. The visitors’ center was closed during winters as part of budget tightening some years ago.
The Forest Service will operate a visitors’ center at Aspen Highlands Village this summer. Details are being worked out for a space and staffing. Fitzwilliams said that is an appropriate site because the Highlands base area is the portal to the Maroon Bells. The buses that haul tens of thousands of visitors to the Maroon Bells Recreation Area start from Highlands.
The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District also will improve its Carbondale office in the short term and make it the agency’s hub for year-round workers, according to Fitzwilliams. He said he couldn’t justify keeping both offices open. Nearly all Aspen-Sopris Ranger District employees live downvalley, he said, so it makes sense to base them in Carbondale. That office has traditionally provided visitors’ information both in person and by telephone. Currently, phone calls to the Aspen office (970-945-3300) are being forwarded to the Carbondale office. Calls to the main Aspen line will forward to the Highlands office once it opens later this month.
The Aspen office will continue to serve as a seasonal work center for employees. The bunkhouse is home for seasonal workers.
Fitzwilliams said it remains “vital” for the agency to maintain a presence in Aspen. That’s why he supported maintaining a portion of the property and not selling the entire site in a land conveyance undertaken in 2013. The Forest Service sold five lots that comprised about 1 of the 3 acres of its Aspen compound. The agency said at the time the proceeds from the sale would be used to redevelop offices, residences and a visitors’ center on the remaining two acres.
The long-term plan remains to construct some type of a visitors’ center, “probably renovate” or rebuild the bunkhouse, Fitzwilliams said. The agency wants to explore options with possible “partners” in a visitors’ center, he said. It has mentioned for years that the Forest Service and Aspen Chamber Resort Association could join forces for a visitors’ center, but no progress has been made.
Fitzwilliams said the budget situation forces the White River National Forest staff to “make some tough decisions.”
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