Forest supervisor: Riparian land near El Jebel will remain accessible

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart/The Aspen TimesAcreage along the Roaring Fork River near El Jebel, owned by the U.S. Forest Service, will remain protected if the land is sold, according to the supervisor of the White River National Forest.

ASPEN – About 52 acres of undeveloped wildlife habitat along the Roaring River near El Jebel will remain conserved and accessible to the public even if the Forest Service sells it, the head of the White River National Forest pledged Tuesday.

Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams told the Pitkin County commissioners he understands the ecological importance of the riparian area as well as the desire of anglers and midvalley residents to have guaranteed access.

Fitzwilliams said previously the Forest Service would ensure the land isn’t developed, but he wouldn’t guarantee the public would retain access to the property if it was sold. After Tuesday’s meeting with the county commissioners, he acknowledged the agency’s position has evolved to include retaining public access based on feedback he has received.

The Forest Service is considering the sale of a handful of under-utilized administrative properties scattered around the sprawling White River National Forest as a revenue stream for capital improvement projects within the forest. The Forest Service Facility Realignment and Enhancement Act approved by Congress seven years ago authorizes the sale of “disposal sites” to raise funds for use within the same forest.

The supervisor is seeking funds to re-develop the Forest Service office and visitors’ center at Seventh and Main streets in Aspen as well as other projects.

One of the properties pegged for sale is the remnants of the old Mount Sopris Tree Farm in El Jebel. The Forest Service traded most of the old tree nursery to Eagle and Pitkin counties in the 1990s. That site has now been developed as Crown Mountain Park.

The agency held onto to 81 acres at the tree nursery: the riparian land near the river and an upper bench on the valley floor that includes a pasture for boarding horses, a hay field and a small housing complex for employees.

The land is in Eagle County, but the Pitkin County commissioners have expressed concerns about potentially losing the riparian area. Fitzwilliams tried to calm those fears. The riparian land may be withheld from sale, he said, or the agency will negotiate a deal with the counties to keep it as open space. “We’re a ways from making a decision,” he said.

Commissioner chairwoman Rachel Richards suggested the Forest Service could sell “a lot or two” of its Aspen administrative site to raise funds for re-development in Aspen and leave the El Jebel property alone.

Other highlights of the Forest Service’s annual gathering with the commissioners were:

• The agency and Pitkin County agreed they might have to look into regulating the number of special events that are held on Maroon Creek Road during summers. Officials with both entities expressed concern about the frequency of complete road closures.

“My concern is we have a very short summer and it could take up every weekend,” said commissioner George Newman.

Aspen District Ranger Scott Snelson said the agency is seeing an increase in applications for special events that affect Maroon Valley. “How much is too much? We’re actually wrestling with that internally,” Snelson said.

• The supervisor’s office has completed a Travel Management Plan, although it hasn’t been released yet to the public. The plan determines what roads and trails are open to what uses, and what gets closed.

“There are a lot of happy people around the office who have been working on it for seven years,” Fitzwilliams said.

The plan is in the hands of the Government Printing Office. The delivery is expected in roughly four weeks, then it will be released to the public.

The plan will legalize some bandit trails created by forest users in the Aspen area, Fitzwilliams and Snelson said, but the Balcony Trail isn’t one of them. That illegal trail on Smuggler Mountain is posted as closed, Snelson said, and the agency will increase enforcement efforts if the closure is ignored. Meanwhile, the Forest Service is negotiating with Pitkin County Open Space and Trails and the city of Aspen for a group management plan of lands on lower Smuggler Mountain, one of the favorite playgrounds for local residents.