Maroon Lake input sought by Forest Serviceg | AspenTimes.com
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Maroon Lake input sought by Forest Serviceg

The U.S. Forest Service will go above and beyond its requirements by giving the public another chance to review and influence the construction project under way at Maroon Lake.

Aspen District Ranger Jim Upchurch, who was named to the post June 5, said he wants to solicit public opinion as part of the Forest Service’s previously scheduled break in construction to review the work.

“We do want to take a look where we’re at with the whole project,” said Upchurch.

But he made no promises that the project would be altered.

The Forest Service’s contractors are finishing work on a new underground facility that combines bathrooms and a bus stop on the edge of Maroon Lake Meadow. It’s being built where the old upper parking lot was located.

The federal agency is also pouring concrete for a network of trails that will connect the new facility with the main parking lot nearby.

The bathroom and bus-stop facility is an underground bunker that is covered with an earthen berm. The design is meant to protect it from avalanches in the winter and shield buses and other unsightly activity from hikers coming down from Crater Lake or from people milling around Maroon Lake.

The bunker will only be exposed on the plaza side to the east, where buses will unload. Otherwise, only rock and dirt are visible.

“It’s not really fair to judge it by the shape it’s in right now,” said Upchurch. The work will be substantially completed in three weeks.

A second bunker is proposed for a visitors’ center. That facility – which would include interpretative displays, an information kiosk and a retail shop – would be built adjacent to the bathroom/bus stop. Review size and need Upchurch said the Forest Service will review whether the visitors’ center is necessary and, if so, whether it needs to be built as large as proposed.

He said he believes there is a need for some type of facility where visitors to the Maroon Bells base can interact with interpreters. The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies runs an interpretative program at Maroon Lake in conjunction with the Forest Service.

An option worth considering, he said, is some type of interpretative and information center at Highlands Village. The Hines development company, which is building the village at the base of Aspen Highlands ski area, and the Aspen Skiing Co. have held initial talks with the Forest Service about a facility in that village.

The Skico owns the main day-lodge at Highlands. It bases skier services there in the winter, but there is no use yet planned for summertime. People in the Hines organization have envisioned that lodge as an interpretative center that would be staffed by the Forest Service. It could work well because some of the buses that serve Maroon Lake are expected to originate from Highlands starting next summer. Right management approach? The Forest Service has been working on this latest management plan for Maroon Lake for the last five years. Congress approved $6 million for improvements.

Proponents of the current plan said new facilities were necessary to stop environmental degradation created by hordes of visitors. The Maroon Lake area receives about 200,000 visitors annually.

Critics contend that pouring so much concrete was the wrong way to respond.

Upchurch came to Aspen from Durango, where he was involved in wilderness and recreation issues in the San Juan National Forest. He noted that the San Juan wilderness has the highest use in the state. However, there was no one feature or site that was as popular as Maroon Lake, he said.

Aspen’s signature landmark receives visitation on the level of national parks, Upchurch noted.

The Forest Service went through an extensive public education process before the Maroon Valley project started. However, some people who have witnessed the extent of the work this spring claim they either didn’t see the plans in advance or didn’t comprehend the scope of the proposal. Won’t tip hand Upchurch stressed that his desire to reopen a review isn’t an effort to “undermine” the public comment that was received before the project started.

“I’m not in a position to say we won’t listen to what people have said and go with what I want,” he said.

In fact, Upchurch said he hasn’t formed an opinion yet about the proposed visitors’ center.

“I’m not going to commit one way or another” until further study is completed, he said.

That study will be undertaken in two ways. First, the Forest Service’s regular process includes an internal analysis to see if the proposed project still makes sense or, essentially, whether there is still bang for the buck.

Upchurch has committed to go beyond that step by asking the public how it feels. Nothing requires the Forest Service to re-solicit public opinion.

Upchurch said he wants to meet at Maroon Lake with the individuals and representatives of organizations that commented initially on the project. He hopes to pull that off within the next three weeks.


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