Holy Cross tree-cutting plan draws more heat | AspenTimes.com

Holy Cross tree-cutting plan draws more heat

Eddie Johnson was suprised to find hundreds of blobs of paint on Aspen trees behind his place of employment at Toklat in Ashcroft recently.Daniel Bayer photo.

Aspen conservationists are scrambling to try to force Holy Cross Energy to bury a power line rather than cut down up to 400 trees for maintenance in the upper Castle Creek Valley.

The Pitkin County Trails and Open Space Board plans to formalize its opposition by writing a letter to the U.S. Forest Service requesting that the line be buried, according to Rick Neiley, the board’s new chairman.

Lynn Mace, whose family operates the historic Toklat Lodge at Ashcroft, is rallying opposition among residents of the Castle Creek Valley against the line maintenance proposal.

Mace is also president of the Maroon/Castle Creek Caucus, a neighborhood group which debates issues affecting their valleys. She said the caucus will hold a regular meeting Sept. 6 and discuss whether it wants to take a stand against the Holy Cross proposal.

The power company has applied to remove “high hazard trees” along a 1.5-mile section of the valley. In addition, all trees would be removed along a 1,200-foot-long stretch.

The targeted area starts about a half-mile north, or downvalley, from Toklat and ends a mile south of the lodge. It is on the west side of Castle Creek Road.

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“The aerial line is regularly being broken by falling large aspen trees and one small fire was caused by a falling line earlier this summer,” said a letter from the Forest Service to potentially interested parties.

Forest Service officials estimated that the work could affect between 300 and 400 mature aspen trees. Aspen District Ranger Jim Upchurch said the tree removal wouldn’t be visible from the road so its visual impact would be limited.

Mace disputed the claim.

“That’s garbage,” she said. “All winter people will be able to see it, and there will be a power line overhead. It’s a travesty.”

Even if the tree removal cannot be seen from the road, thousands of cross-country skiers at Ashcroft Ski Touring will see it, she said.

A Holy Cross official told the Aspen Daily News earlier this month that the company didn’t want to bury the line because of the expense. It would cost about $300,000 to bury the line rather than $50,000 to cut the trees, an official estimated.

The only designated spokesman for Holy Cross was out of the office until Monday and unavailable for comment.

Mace said the fiscal impacts to the company pale in comparison to visual impacts to the public. She said it makes little sense that the public has gone to great lengths to limit development in the valley only to let a power company degrade the environment.

The Ryan family sold and traded roughly 1,000 acres at and around Ashcroft in 1982-83 to the Forest Service. The Pitkin County Open Space Board purchased 35 remaining acres for $3.1 million.

“This is public land, and this is land we all paid dearly for,” said Mace. “A public utility can’t just ram [a proposal] down our throats. We need to get vocal about it.”

Mace said she has talked to Upchurch and will formalize her comments in a letter. She stressed that she couldn’t speak for the caucus or predict its reaction.

Neiley said the open space program’s letter will note that its purchase of the last Ryan parcel was performed in partnership with the Forest Service. The board doesn’t want its partner now taking action that could degrade the visually sensitive property.

The power line is either across or adjacent to the open space board’s land, Neiley said. Clear-cutting a wider swath of trees will degrade its visual quality.

“Our opposition is basically that we had strong urging from the Aspen Ranger District to move the Ryan parcel from private to public ownership,” Neiley said.

Aspen Wilderness Workshop turned in a letter stating its concerns before the Aug. 2 deadline.

The Forest Service hasn’t made any decision yet. Upchurch said he will consider the public’s concerns about visual degradation. He sent a landscape architect from the Forest Service to the site Wednesday to weigh visual-quality issues.

The Forest Service will also assess the effect of the proposed work on wildlife. That assessment must be forwarded to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for review, so a decision could be months away, Upchurch said.

The issue hasn’t produced an overwhelming response, but the Forest Service has received several comments of concern, the district ranger said. The scoping period, or time that the Forest Service officially accepted public comment, only lasted from July 26 to Aug. 2.

The issue caught many people unaware. Both Neiley and Mace said they had received notification from the feds in June that Holy Cross was considering burying the upper Castle Creek Valley line. But the Forest Service’s latest letter said that decision had been changed.

Upchurch said he will still accept comments even though the official period is over. “People can write any time on any project,” he said.

He said it was too unpredictable to say when a decision could be made.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]