More forestry work eyed for Smuggler Mountain
September 6, 2012
ASPEN – A trio of tree-cutting projects this fall on Smuggler Mountain – a favorite Aspen playground – is but a taste of what’s envisioned in a broader plan that encompasses more than 4,000 acres of national forest in the Smuggler-Hunter Creek area.
The upcoming projects represent the fourth year of efforts to improve forest health and habitat on the 243-acre Smuggler Mountain Open Space, owned jointly by the city of Aspen and Pitkin County, but the issues local land managers hope to address by clearing swaths of vegetation don’t stop at the open space boundaries.
The recently released Hunter Creek-Smuggler Mountain Cooperative Plan, a joint effort of the U.S. Forest Service, local government and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, with input from recreation proponents, fire managers and others, proposes similar forestry projects and recreation-oriented improvements on 4,681 acres in the adjacent White River National Forest to the east and northeast of Aspen.
The plan, which can be downloaded at http://www.hunter-smugglerplan.com, will be presented to Pitkin County commissioners and the county Open Space and Trails board of trustees at a joint meeting on Sept. 25.
While the envisioned projects on federal land require environmental review, the locally owned Smuggler Mountain Open Space has seen a multiyear effort to construct new single-track trails, revegetate damaged areas and improve the diversity of the forest to make it more resilient and improve wildlife habitat.
After two years of efforts aimed at preventing a pervasive beetle-wrought die-off of lodgepole pines on Smuggler, last year’s work entailed creating three clearings of roughly 1 acre each in the forest, creating room for new growth. The logging and hauling off of the trees cost the city and county $75,000, according to Gary Tennenbaum, county open space and trails land steward.
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This year’s work is budgeted at $50,000, plus additional funding from ACES. Bids from prospective contractors are due Thursday.
The planned projects include mechanical cutting of overly mature Gambel oak on about
7 acres adjacent to Smuggler Mountain Road, which climbs up the mountain from the edge
of town. Also proposed is expanding one of the patches cut last year by felling another 50 or so lodgepole pines, plus cutting conifers that are encroaching on stands of aspen trees in another area.
“One of the goals is to have some aspen stands that are regenerating,” Tennenbaum said. “The only way to do that is to have a disturbance.”
All of the projects are mechanical efforts to mimic wildfire, he explained. Fire is nature’s way of regenerating a forest, but the Smuggler Mountain Open Space is both a heavily used recreation area and too close to Aspen to employ a controlled burn or let a wildfire take its course.
In fact, open space officials weren’t sure this year’s slate of projects could be done, given high fire danger earlier in the summer. Moisture levels have since returned to normal, allowing the use of mechanical equipment with the proper precautions, Tennenbaum said.
The projects on Smuggler, initially spearheaded by the nonprofit For the Forest (an organization that was folded into ACES late last year), are in a sense pilot projects for what’s proposed in the Hunter Creek-Smuggler Mountain Cooperative Plan.
The broader plan calls for treatments of lodgepole stands, aspens and Gambel oak, as well, totaling as many as 836 acres of potential forest-restoration projects that also can improve wildlife habitat.
“It’ll be at a large-enough scale that it will have important impacts for forest health and wildlife,” said Scott Snelson, Forest Service ranger for the Aspen-Sopris District of the White River National Forest.
The cooperative plan also contains recreation elements, proposing 1.7 fewer miles of trail overall by closing off redundant routes but also identifying opportunities for new trail connections. It also proposes improved signs to direct trail users on the various routes in the Smuggler, Hunter Creek and Van Horn Park areas and the creation of better maps.
A Heritage Trail that allows exploration of the mining and homesteading relics in the area is proposed, as is establishing a new single-track loop in the Hunter Creek Valley for beginning mountain bikers as well as hikers. The plan also calls for exploring the potential for a single-track mountain-biking trail on the south side of Smuggler Mountain, where users have created the unauthorized bandit route known as the Balcony Trail.
The Balcony Trail was built without Forest Service approval or evaluation of impacts on wildlife or other resources, but the plan acknowledges the desire for such a route, Snelson said. The plan proposes exploring an alignment that might or might not use parts of the Balcony Trail and restoring problem parts of the existing trail to their natural state. An environmental review would include a “no trail” option in the area, the plan notes.
The plan also recommends improvements to Smuggler Mountain Road to allow the envisioned management activities to occur without altering the existing “service level” of the road.
The plan is a multiyear master plan for the acreage involved, and its recommendations would be subjected to public review and comment as well as review under the National Environmental Policy Act, according to Snelson.
Funding of the improvements would be a joint effort involving the Forest Service and local agencies, he said.