Hunter-Smuggler plan generates comment |

Hunter-Smuggler plan generates comment

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Adam Zuehlke and Annie Durkin, both of Aspen, hike through snow on Smuggler Mountain Sunday, bound for the Hunter Creek Valley. The area is the focus of proposed trail, forest and habitat improvements.

The fate of a bandit mountain-biking trail on Smuggler Mountain is on the minds of many of the citizens who’ve submitted comments on the Hunter-Smuggler Mountain Cooperative Plan.

Proposed forestry projects in the Hunter-Smuggler area on the edge of Aspen have also garnered skepticism, though most of the 19 people who had lodged online comments by Thursday morning offered general praise for the overall plan. It outlines recreational, forest and habitat improvements on more than 4,000 acres of national forest just outside of Aspen.

The land abuts open space on Smuggler owned by the city of Aspen and Pitkin County. The plan, spearheaded by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, working with the U.S. Forest Service and local governments, takes a seamless approach to managing the popular backcountry area since users don’t know when they’re crossing jurisdictional boundaries anyway.

The proposals were well vetted in a series of meetings and open houses with recreation and conservation groups, the general public, fire managers, wildlife officials and others, but a formal comment period, conducted by the U.S. Forest Service, is now under way. It ends May 13.

On the trail

On the recreation front, the plan proposes a reduction of 1.7 miles worth of trails overall by closing off redundant routes, but also identifies opportunities for new connections, along with better maps and signs. It calls for exploring the potential for a singletrack mountain-biking trail on the south side of Smuggler, where users have created an unauthorized route known as the Bandit Trail, but it makes no promises that such a trail is in Smuggler’s future. The Forest Service considers the Bandit Trail an illegal route that impinges on wildlife habitat, particularly for black bears, and has posted it as closed.

“The Balcony Trail is the crown jewel in this area and should be left alone except for minor improvements,” wrote Ted MacBlane in his comments, echoing the thoughts of other users who want to continue accessing the controversial route. “I look forward to working on this trail system, helping make it better for all.”

“I discovered the Balcony Trail in recent years and hope that it can be made part of the system,” wrote Jim Pokrandt. “It provides a more arduous alternative, and because of that, there are fewer people on it. It will naturally self-regulate.”

Blake Appleby urged the Forest Service to make the trail legal and reroute it where necessary.

“While the trail was apparently built as a bandit trail, it serves a unique purpose by offering an area of riding that is otherwise unreachable by bicycle,” he wrote.

Some of those who commented also praised plans for new trails and improvements to routes such as Sunnyside Plunge.

Given the Hunter-Smuggler area’s close proximity to Aspen, Elizabeth Mondry said she favors opening it up as much as possible to hikers and mountain bikers while protecting wildlife and other natural resources.

“For this reason, the addition of a beginner biking trail is just as important as preserving more advanced trails such as the Balcony,” she wrote.

Forest restoration

The plan also proposes more than 800 acres of potential forest restoration projects that can improve wildlife habitat and reduce wildfire danger, but the envisioned forestry work raised concerns for some.

Andre Schwegler commended the Forest Service for working to protect the forest, but called for reasonable measures.

“I am not in favor of major clear cutting and other extreme forest management techniques and urge the Forest Service to embark on this aspect of the plan with caution and consideration, as burning, bulldozing and logging will leave long-lasting scars on the landscape,” he wrote.

Kirk Hinderberger said he was concerned about just two things: that too much deforestation would occur and that trail closures and reroutes, particularly regarding the Balcony Trail, won’t take into account the biking community’s best interests.

Lucy Nichols, on the other hand, voiced concern about a potential overabundance of directional and informational signs along the trails.

“The presence of signs at every intersection, trail entrance, etc. depicting directions, difficulty of topo and more, reduces the sense and experience of wilderness,” she wrote. “I urge you to reconsider the planned heavy-handed approach to placing signage in backcountry settings.”

The Hunter-Smuggler plan can be found at (click on Project Overview for a summary of the proposals). The site also offers a link for those who wish to submit comments.

While the ongoing comment period focuses on the plan itself, its various proposals will be subject to an environmental assessment before work commences.

Martha Moran, recreation staff supervisor with the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the Forest Service, has said she considers certain recreational projects to be a priority, starting with fixes to the Sunnyside Plunge, a steep, eroding trail that connects the Hunter Creek Valley floor to the ridge on the valley’s north side, where Sunnyside is among the network of singletrack trails popular with mountain bikers and others. Other trail repairs are also in order, she said.