Forest supervisor ‘guarantees’ conservation, public access to El Jebel land | AspenTimes.com

Forest supervisor ‘guarantees’ conservation, public access to El Jebel land

The U.S. Forest Service is proposing to sell this land along the Roaring Fork River in El Jebel. However, the forest service said this parcel's ecological integrity and access by the public will be preserved even if it is sold.

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said Wednesday he will personally attend an open house today on the proposed sale of property in El Jebel and assure concerned residents that environmentally sensitive land by the Roaring Fork River will remain protected.

The Forest Service wants to sell two adjoining parcels of property it owns in the middle of the valley floor. The land is divorced from national forest, so it is considered administrative property. Congress authorized the Forest Service in 2005 to sell unneeded administrative property to raise funds for capital improvement elsewhere in the same forest.

The El Jebel land includes a 40-acre parcel along the Roaring Fork River that is filled with wetlands and a healthy ecosystem that includes the rare Ute Ladies' Tresses orchid. It provides more than 1 acre of access to the river for anglers and trails heavily used by residents of surrounding high-density subdivisions.

Fitzwilliams said that while the Forest Service wants to sell the property, it also wants to preserve it as is.

"It's an absolute," he said. "We won't sell it unless we can guarantee the ecological integrity is preserved" and public access remains open, he said.

"Those are two 'musts,'" Fitzwilliams said.

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The land will be preserved through a conservation easement or deed restriction as part of the sale, he said.

Issues will be fleshed out

The Forest Service Facilities Realignment and Enhancement Act of 2005 allows the agency to undertake a streamlined process to sell eligible property. However, because of the sensitivity of the lower parcel, the White River staff is undertaking an environmental impact statement, the most detailed review.

The agency is accepting comment during what's known as a public scoping process. The deadline for comments is Jan. 20. It will use the comments to identify significant issues and use them to form alternatives. A draft environmental impact statement will likely be released in the spring.

The public will have another opportunity to comment on the proposal once that draft is released. A decision will be made by Jim Bedwell, director of recreation, lands and minerals for the Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service, one of the top officials in the area.

Even though the final decision will be out of Fitzwilliams' hands, he said he could speak for the agency's commitment to conserving the lower parcel and maintaining the public access after a sale.

"We couldn't with a straight face take any other direction on this," he said.

The Aspen Times couldn't reach Bedwell through telephone calls in the morning and afternoon.

Can't properly maintain land

The upper parcel at El Jebel is about 31 acres and includes three single-family homes rented by Forest Service workers, an irrigated field, a "boneyard" for storage of equipment and materials and a pasture where the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District used to graze its horses.

The upper parcel is worth more in a sale because of development potential, Fitzwilliams said. The lower parcel will have a lower price because of the conservation requirement, he said.

Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service's inability to properly maintain the property is a bigger motivation to sell than the potential for a big-dollar sale. The agency isn't set up to maintain an isolated, 40-acre parcel separate from the bulk of the national forest, he said.

Likewise, the affordable-housing units need maintenance that the district cannot afford and the pastureland cannot be adequately cared for by a staff that has been consistently reduced from lack of funding.

Eagle County sniffing

Officials with the Forest Service and Eagle County have discussed the county acquiring the lower parcel for open space and upper parcel for housing, Fitzwilliams said.

Toby Sprunk, director of the Eagle County Open Space program, said discussions have taken place and he is aware of the Forest Service's recent announcement of the sale.

However, there are a lot of possible projects competing for limited funds, he said. He will work with the open space program's advisory board to determine the level of interest in the acquisition of the lower parcel and where it ranks among priorities.

Pitkin County Open Space and Trails will have a representative at the open house.

Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said the head of the housing program will attend today's open house. However, she said from her perspective, the acquisition of the upper parcel for employee housing seems like an "unlikely" option because of oppositions in the neighborhood to additional traffic and high density housing on Valley Road.

scondon@aspentimes.com

IF YOU GO

What: Public open house on Forest Service’s proposed sale of land in El Jebel

Where: Eagle County building at Crown Mountain Park

When: 5:30 to 7 p.m.

Information: Additional information related to the project can be obtained from the project website: http://www.fs.fed.us/nepa/fs-usda-pop.php/?project=50663. It includes a link where comments can be submitted. The deadline is Jan. 20.