New prized public lands near Carbondale get an ugly scar from legal ditch work
WINTER CLOSURES END
The winter trails closures to benefit wildlife end today on Sky Mountain Park in the upper Roaring Fork Valley and Glassier Open Space in the midvalley.
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails said the Deadline Trail in Sky Mountain Park will remain closed for maintenance into next week, but it will open for the weekend.
One of the Bureau of Land Management’s prized acquisitions from a land swap in the Roaring Fork Valley has got a fresh scar that some observers fear will take generations to recover.
A construction crew replaced an irrigation ditch with underground pipe in the past two weeks in the heart of the Prince Creek trail network 4 miles south of Carbondale. The work was legal and for the good cause of water conservation, but it left a denuded, 50-foot swath beside one of the most popular mountain bike and running trails in the valley.
“Right after it happens, it does not look good,” said David Boyd, public affairs specialist with the BLM.
He said the outfit that undertook the work was the Prince Creek Ditch Co., which possesses a right-of-way on the property that dates back to the 19th century. The right-of-way was in place before the 1976 Federal Lands and Policy Management Act.
“What that means is that the right-of-way holder does not need authorization from BLM to do work like this on BLM lands,” Boyd said. “They did coordinate with us but they didn’t have to.”
The company has the right to perform work 50 feet on either side of the ditch or a total of 100 feet wide. It stayed well within that right-of-way when it buried the water pipe, Boyd said. The Aspen Times verified that most of the disturbed area was 50 feet wide and went on for an unknown linear distance.
The BLM asked the company to pile brush on the disturbed area so that it wouldn’t be tempting for off-road enthusiasts to access from Prince Creek Road.
“We did not anticipate that amount of brush,” Boyd said. “We had folks out there (Tuesday) and we are looking at what we can do to lessen the visual damage — scatter more, use the chipper, those kinds of things.”
A contact for the Prince Creek Ditch Co. wasn’t available from the BLM on Wednesday because the worker who coordinated with the company was out of the office, according to Boyd. No official records could be found for Prince Creek Ditch Co., though evidence was found of a Prince Ditch.
A popular climbing singletrack route called the Prince Creek Trail crosses through the disturbed area. A companion, descending route called Lower Monte Carlo travels parallel to the disturbed area for about one-quarter mile. Both trails used to have bridges constructed over the irrigation ditch.
Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association received inquires from a few riders wondering what happened to the area. Initially the trail access was obscured by loose rock and dirt, and brush covered the area.
“People were asking ‘WTF?’ It didn’t have to go down that way,” said Mike Pritchard, executive director of the mountain bike association.
A member of RFMBA’s board of directors went to the site to place signs for the trail and mark the trail border with brush. The group isn’t questioning the need or benefit of replacing the ditch with a pipe, but contends the impacts could have been less.
“The easement is very wide for the ditch. We wish they would have been more sensitive with the work (by the trail), but what’s done is done,” Pritchard said.
Lower Monte Carlo had been aligned to travel along the open water before crossing the bridge. Now that the water is gone, the association might consult with the BLM about changing the alignment and getting the trail out of the disturbed landscape, Pritchard said. That couldn’t be accomplished until next year at the earliest.
Midvalley mountain biker Tom Stevens, who has spent decades in the valley in landscape and environmental planning and previously owned an excavation business, said he felt the work caused too much environmental destruction.
“It appeared to be more devastation than was needed to pipe the ditch,” he said. “Instead of 50 feet of devastation, they could have done 15 feet.”
The ditch already existed so he can’t understand why such a large excavator was needed for the project and why such a wide swath was denuded. An untold amount of oak brush and number of aspen trees were knocked down by the excavator’s bucket, Stevens said.
Reseeding won’t help the recovery of the oak brush that dominates the Prince Creek landscape.
“Those things won’t be back for 100 years,” Stevens said.
Mountain bikers will adapt to the new conditions but it’s the amount of environmental damage that concerns him, he said, calling it “irresponsible.”
The BLM acquired the 112-acre Haines property in March 2017 as part of a land swap with the Wexner family. The BLM also acquired Sutey Ranch and gave up property south of Prince Creek Road near the base of Mount Sopris.
The federal agency formally authorized about 4 miles of bandit trails that were developed on the property, approved additional trails and closed down 2 miles of routes that crossed other private land. The BLM also developed a campground on the Haines property.
The BLM’s acquisition of the Haines property prompted Pitkin County Open Space and Trails to develop a parking lot on Prince Creek Road and build nearly 2 miles of singletrack to connect to the BLM lands.
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The Aspen and Carbondale community schools will hold a mid-May fundraiser that they hope will set them on the right financial path for 2021-22.