Forest Service seeks to sell or lease El Jebel property for broader community benefits
The top official in the White River National Forest has visions of a “grand bargain” that could put 70 acres of midvalley land to use for broad community benefit.
Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the U.S. Forest Service wants to “dispose” of the property at the former Mount Sopris Tree Farm in El Jebel. The 70 acres is an isolated island that the agency cannot properly care for, he said.
In the past, disposal meant selling property and using the proceeds for a beneficial use on the forest. But now the options are broader because a farm bill passed by Congress in late 2018 allows the Forest Service to lease property as well.
That opens some interesting options, Fitzwilliams said Wednesday.
The Forest Service land is in two parcels adjacent to Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel. About 40 acres is on a bench along the Roaring Fork River. Fitzwilliams has already pledged that the riverside property will remain undeveloped.
“It must remain as is,” he said. “It’s protected ecologically. It must remain accessible to the public.”
The lower bench would be best suited in the hands of the open space programs, he said. Pitkin and Eagle counties have robust open space programs. The property is in Eagle County but Pitkin County has occasionally ventured outside its borders for a special project.
Another 30 acres is located along Valley Road, above the river bench. That property is more appropriate for developed uses.
The upper parcel could meet Crown Mountain Park’s needs for additional space while also providing a site for affordable housing, potentially pursued by Eagle County, Fitzwilliams said.
It’s also important for the Forest Service and partners to respect neighbors’ desires for limited activity, Fitzwilliams said.
That’s where he sees the need for a grand bargain that balances a variety of uses and desires.
The Forest Service’s goal — in addition to shedding the responsibility to care for the property — is to emerge from a sale or lease “with more affordable housing for our employees,” Fitzwilliams said. He also would prefer obtaining housing that another entity oversees, getting the White River out of the landlord business. The Forest Service has a small bunkhouse used by seasonal workers and three single-family homes used as “transitional housing units” for new employees for as many as two years at the El Jebel property. Fitzwilliams said the agency would want to recoup more units that it currently possesses once it leases or sales the property.
The housing it gains wouldn’t have to be located at the El Jebel site. It could be anywhere from Carbondale to Aspen, he said.
The Forest Service also is assessing the sale or lease of lands just outside of Basalt in Fryingpan Valley and at its Aspen headquarters along the S-curves.
Forest Service officials have had very preliminary talks with representatives of Crown Mountain Park and Eagle County regarding the El Jebel property. The Farm Bill gives the right of first refusal to local communities.
No decisions are close to being made. In fact, before the Forest Service can entertain ideas, it must clear two bureaucratic steps.
First, the White River must complete the National Environmental Policy Act process to gauge if the property is appropriate to convey. Second, since the Farm Bill legislation is barely more than one year old, the national Forest Service office must set policy on implementation. Fitzwilliams expects those steps to be accomplished in 2020, and then work can begin on future use of the property.