Judge dismisses trail case against open space officials

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – A federal judge on Friday dismissed charges against two Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board members who were cited last year by the U.S. Forest Service on suspicion of illegal trail work.

Hawk Greenway and Anne Rickenbaugh had been scheduled to stand trial on the charges Monday and Tuesday in federal court in Grand Junction for their work to mark a trail leading onto property that is the subject of a controversial proposed land swap.

The federal prosecutor in the case filed a motion to dismiss the charges.

“The government dismissed this case in the interest of justice,” said a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Attorney Rick Neiley, representing the two defendants, said he was notified of the decision Friday but was not given a reason for the about-face by the prosecution.

“My suspicion is the conduct they were alleging wasn’t criminal conduct,” he said. “I suspect the prosecutors and the Forest Service, in the final analysis, didn’t feel it was worth going to trial for something pretty minimal.”

Greenway said Friday he was relieved.

“It’s no fun to face federal prosecution,” he said.

Greenway and Rickenbaugh were each cited on suspicion of two separate infractions, both petty offenses. Each faced potential fines totaling $850 and up to six months of incarceration.

“I think they probably thought we’d say, ‘OK, what kind of fines can we negotiate?'” said Neiley, a former Open Space and Trails member who took on the case pro bono. “Hawk and Anne took a principled view of it. … They were willing to risk going to trial.”

“We basically called their bluff,” Greenway said.

“I’m angry that people can drag upstanding, law-abiding citizens to court over nothing,” Rickenbaugh said. “We were hauled into court for exercising our right to use our public lands.”

Rickenbaugh and Greenway, acting as private citizens rather than in their capacity as Open Space and Trails board members, mapped out a route through Forest Service land and onto Bureau of Land Management property at the base of Mount Sopris near Carbondale last summer. Their goal was to determine if a public route existed to facilitate visits to public land that would be privatized in a proposed swap with wealthy landowners Leslie and Abigail Wexner. Ultimately, directions and GPS coordinates were circulated to guide members of the public interested in visiting the land.

Their efforts to identify an access route came in response to claims by the Wexners’ representatives that the BLM property the couple wishes to acquire is all but inaccessible to the public.

The charges against the duo amounted to allegations that they illegally constructed a trail on Forest Service property, Greenway said.

“We did not construct any trails up there,” he said.

A well-used trail follows most of the route the duo mapped, but there were attempts to mark it in some areas by erecting cairns and flagging trees. Some vegetation was trimmed, as well.

Such actions would not have resulted in charges were it not for the politicized backdrop of the land exchange, Greenway contends.

The Wexners want to fold more than 1,200 acres of BLM land into their adjacent Two Shoes Ranch on the flanks of Mount Sopris. In exchange, they have offered to the BLM the 557-acre Sutey Ranch north of Carbondale along with 117 acres along Prince Creek Road. Water rights from Sutey also would go to the BLM, along with a $1.1 million donation for a management plan and long-term management of the Sutey property.

The proposal is under review by the BLM, which had planned to release an environmental analysis of the proposed swap late last month. That step is now expected to occur in April, according to agency spokesman David Boyd.