Hunter Creek ﬁght shook Aspen 25 years ago
July 7, 2012
ASPEN – Twenty-five years ago this summer, a minor land-use dispute between Pitkin County government and a landowner went public and erupted into a community fight rarely matched before or since in Aspen’s lengthy list of squabbles.
The fight over access to public lands in Hunter Creek Valley was indicative of the strains starting to appear in 1987 between “old Aspen,” resistant to change, and wealthy newcomers used to doing things their way. It was also a precursor to debates sparked when wealthy landowners developing in rural areas wanted to turn public lands into private holdings through land swaps.
The 1987 fight broke out after Tom and Bonnie McCloskey purchased 70-plus acres of land from Fritz Benedict on the east end of Red Mountain. Their property was just west of the public lands of Hunter Creek Valley, affectionately known as Aspen’s backyard.
The north and south trails into Hunter Creek paralleled the creek itself, one on either side. They were remnants of old toll roads dating from the mining days of the late 1800s. Both crossed the McCloskeys’ property. They intended to build their house just a few feet off the north road and attempted to close it to anyone trying to access the national forest beyond. They welcomed hikers, bikers, skiers and equestrians on the south trail.
The issue soon caught the attention of longtime locals such as Jim Ward, Jim Auster, Charlie Hopton, Tom Cardamone, former Aspen mayor Stacey Stanley and attorney Tim McFlynn.
“The issue at its core was access to public lands – an imperiled resource whether it’s to mountain peaks, rivers or beaches – as private landowners erect gates and post ‘Private, No Trespassing’ signs,” McFlynn said. “This time, those gates and signs involved Aspen’s backyard – the ‘soul’ of Aspen – where for 100 years, families and visitors had camped, hunted, fished and hiked freely.
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“It was a brazen attempt at privatizing the commons.”
He and others formed Friends of Hunter Creek to make people aware of the issue, pressure the Pitkin County commissioners to fight to defend public access and assist in doing the legal research necessary if the battle went to court. The Friends soon swelled to more than 1,000 supporters, including Elizabeth Paepcke, a matriarch of modern Aspen. “Free Hunter Creek” stickers were plastered to scores of bumpers of vehicles.
The group produced a report in March 1988 that they claimed provided the legal ammunition showing the routes were public. The county commissioners agreed and took a more aggressive stance to keep the north route open.
The access fight became a major issue in the campaigns for three Pitkin County commissioner seats in fall 1988. Jim True pledged in his campaign to fight to keep the north trail open.
“I think access to public lands is an important, fundamental issue to the citizens of the county,” said True, now the city of Aspen attorney. He won election in 1988 and served two four-year terms. Hunter Creek access was frequently on the agenda while he served and was easily one of the top 10 issues of his tenure, he said.
“We were insistent that we pursue litigation that would confirm the public’s right to access the valley,” he said.
The McCloskeys, some of their neighbors and Red Mountain Ranch Homeowners Association fired the first legal salvo with a federal lawsuit against the county commissioners on Christmas Eve 1988.
A long, laborious legal fight followed. The McCloskeys contended that the county waived any ownership to the roads decades earlier. The Friends and county contended a prescriptive right to the routes was established by using the routes for years without permission. In a 1994 trial, the county and its allies called about 50 witnesses who testified to the use of the north and south routes for years. A judge ruled in 1988 that both routes are owned by the public. The McCloskeys appealed the decision in 2002, and it was ordered to mediation. A settlement was implemented in 2004.
The deal allows hikers, bikers, skiers and equestrians to use the north route. Hunters can drive the route during fall big-game seasons. There is a restricted parking lot on the border of the McCloskey property and the national forest. It can only be used by vehicles traveling with handicapped or elderly forest visitors.
The McCloskeys were allowed to move a section of the north road away from their house and toward the creek. The south access has always remained in use by hikers and bikers.
Ward, one of the founders of Friends of Hunter Creek, said he drove the north road onto Red Mountain and to the forest boundary on Monday in pursuit of a good view of the sunset. Recalling the fight left a bad taste in his mouth that evening. Ward said he returned to his home and jotted down some of his thoughts on paper. In the spirit of July Fourth and in fairness to the citizens of Pitkin County, he said, the McCloskeys should compensate the public for all the time and money it was forced to spend on the access fight. The money should go to a worthy cause, such as reducing the threat of wildfire, he said.
Ward acknowledged he is still biased against the McCloskeys. He said he believes they are trying to change their image as “selfish bullies” by funding the McCloskey Speaker Series at the Aspen Institute.
A message to Tom McCloskey’s office for comment on the Hunter Creek access dispute wasn’t returned.
McFlynn, who served as one of the attorneys for Friends of Hunter Creek, said there were many diverse views within the citizens’ group on how to negotiate with the McCloskeys after the court case was won. Some members wanted to push for unlimited access. McFlynn argued against allowing motorized access. He and others feared the Forest Service would eventually want to develop Hunter Creek Valley to take pressure off Maroon Creek Valley. They envisioned a road open to vehicles, campgrounds and other facilities crammed into the beautiful valley. He lobbied Friends members to take a 100-year view and keep it closed to vehicles.
“You couldn’t just listen to the loudest voices, otherwise you’d win the battle but lose the war,” McFlynn said. “You would have blood on your hands when that pristine valley is overrun with roads, cars, dirt bikes and ATVs and the solitude and quiet of the ‘soul’ of Aspen was forever lost.”
He defends the settlement compromise and noted that Pitkin County Open Space and Trails is working on a management plan for the Hunter Creek/Smuggler Mountain area with the Forest Service. That could potentially change access.
Ward, who is friends with McFlynn, doesn’t support the compromise. The relocated stretch of road is too close to the creek and is not satisfactory from an environmental standpoint, he said. Plus, he claimed it isn’t clear enough that the public has the right to use the north road. Some people would find it intimidating.
“The existing access into Hunter Creek is not welcoming for people to go past there,” he said.
Nevertheless, Ward said he believes the Hunter Creek access dispute was a prime example of Aspenites rallying to do something they felt was right.