Joint effort will manage Aspen-area backcountry |

Joint effort will manage Aspen-area backcountry

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Planning new trails, habitat work and other management of more than 4,000 acres on Smuggler Mountain and in the Hunter Creek Valley near Aspen is to become a joint effort that involves local governments, a federal agency and a nonprofit group.

The unprecedented collaboration is spelled out in a memorandum of understanding among the U.S. Forest Service, city of Aspen, Pitkin County and Aspen-based nonprofit For the Forest.

The mere drafting of the agreement is a big step; it has been in the works for some time, according to Gary Tennenbaum, land steward with the county’s Open Space and Trails program.

“It’s a very good step in the right direction,” he told the Open Space and Trails board of directors on Thursday. The board voted to recommend county commissioners ink the agreement.

The goal, Tennenbaum said, is the creation of a master plan by the spring of 2012 that addresses recreational improvements, habitat work, forest health and reducing wildfire risk for one of the Aspen area’s most heavily used backcountry areas.

“This is such a large area. The amount of use we get up there is a huge driver for our community,” Tennenbaum said.

The city and county own and manage 234 acres of open space on Smuggler Mountain, flanking Aspen to the east. The two governments have adopted management plans that led to the construction of popular new trail routes, the reclamation of degraded areas and ongoing habitat and forest health work, including efforts to slow the spread of the mountain pine beetle.

On the federal land beyond the borders of the open space, however, little has been done, given the Forest Service’s limited financial resources, Tennenbaum noted.

“You hit that border and nothing’s happened,” he said.

Hikers, mountain bikers and backcountry skiers, however, aren’t likely to realize when they’ve crossed from locally owned open space onto Forest Service land. A master plan for the area would ignore the boundaries, as well, and create a seamless vision for trail connections and maintenance, the reduction of wildfire risk and other endeavors.

For the Forest has provided funds for the Forest Service to hire consultants to assist in determining the public’s desires for the lands.

An open house is scheduled from 5-7 p.m. Tuesday in the downstairs meeting room at the Pitkin County Library to update the public on what the partnership hopes to accomplish. Citizen input will be welcome, Tennenbaum said.

While work on Forest Service land will require review through a federal process, it’s possible that For the Forest and local governments can help fund the projects, Tennenbaum said. He pointed to needed maintenance on Sunnyside Plunge, a steep trail that connects the Hunter Creek Valley floor to the Sunnyside Trail on the ridge opposite the valley from Smuggler Mountain, as an example.

“Sunnyside Plunge is an erosion nightmare,” Tennenbaum said.

The intention is not for the city and county to take over maintenance of all of Smuggler and the Hunter Creek Valley, but to assist in efforts that could include designing new trails and maintaining and rerouting existing ones. Directional signs are also needed to help visitors find their way around, Tennenbaum contends.

It’s in the city’s and county’s best interest to help finance work on Forest Service property, given its connection to locally owned open space and the heavy, year-round use the area receives, he said. The memorandum, however, does not obligate any of the partners to a financial outlay.

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