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Nature center without nature?

A view of the Levinson site between Two Rivers Road and the Roaring Fork River in Basalt. Aspen Times photo/Nick Saucier.
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A midvalley conservancy group and a state wildlife officer are concerned there might not be any nature remaining for a nature center proposed in Basalt after work is completed on a new park.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy has told Basalt officials that their plan for the park on the Levinson property may result in the removal of too many trees and the loss of a natural feel.

The town’s contractor has heavy equipment tearing apart much of the terrain, and right now it looks like the site of a major development. But town officials contend it will be a jewel of a riverfront park by next April, when the project will be completed.

Jeanne Beaudry, executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, said she doesn’t yet know whether to expect riverfront land with a natural feel or an urban park once the work is completed. “That’s what remains to be seen,” she said.

The Levinson property was purchased through the town’s fledgling open space protection program. The plan has always been to establish a park on the side closest to the Roaring Fork River. The side closest to Two Rivers Road, where the Taqueria restaurant is located, will be sold for redevelopment by the private sector. The proceeds from the land sale will go back to the open space fund.

The long-awaited park development plan sparked spirited debate at a Town Council meeting last month between government officials and conservationists, including Beaudry.

At that meeting, Beaudry assured the board members that the conservancy supports the park. The Conservancy is negotiating to purchase another part of the Levinson land closer to Two Rivers Road. It envisions building a nature center there and using the park as a natural classroom.

Beaudry said the town’s plan has “come a long way” from the initial design of the park. Now, for example, natural grasses and vegetation will be used.

But she remains concerned that in excess of 100 cottonwoods and other trees will be plucked or chopped down to accommodate development of park amenities and features such as a wall to protect the park from flooding and erosion. The roots of other trees could be harmed by construction of a huge trench where boulders will be buried to protect land by the pond from getting eaten away by flood waters from the Roaring Fork.

Beaudry told council members she felt bad criticizing parts of the town’s plan, but felt it was the Conservancy’s duty to speak up. “We are supposed to be the voice of the rivers and speak to the environmental issues,” she said.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife officer for the Basalt area shares the Conservancy’s concerns. Wildlife officer Kelly Wood said she thought there was a different vision for the property.

Given the town’s plan, she fears “having a nature center next to an area where we’re kind of pushing out nature,” Wood said.

“I was kind of concerned about what the nature center is going to show the kids – that this used to have deer and bear and all sorts of other animals in it, but we went in and cleaned it up for you,” Wood continued.

She urged the town to scale back its plans for the park and leave it more natural.

Town officials noted that much has already been done to improve the property and every possible step will be taken to minimize the project’s environmental consequences.

The eastern side of the riverfront property used to be home to a handful of ramshackle cabins and trailer houses. The town purchased the Levinson property, then compensated the trailer and cabin owners before removing the dwellings. It also cleaned up junked cars and several dump-truck loads of garbage. Everyone agrees that effort helped return the property to a more natural state.

But the western side of the property particularly concerns the conservationists. The floor of the thick woods there was covered with rotting leaves and twigs. Dead and dying trees make it an ecologically diverse area of wetlands.

Eye-catching work by heavy equipment over the last two weeks has sparked concerns from people who don’t follow the government’s planning process. Workers drained the scummy old pond on the property and are rebuilding its dam and the ditch that feeds it. A “forebay” will be constructed to catch debris and settle the runoff heading into the pond, then the pond will be restocked with trout and aerated so algae doesn’t overtake it.

The town’s contractor is also digging a 20-foot-deep trench where boulders will be buried to protect the pond from flooding and erosion. Riverbank stabilization will be undertaken, and jetties will be added in the Roaring Fork River to improve access for boaters.

The town received $500,000 from Great Outdoors Colorado for the project. Additional funds were awarded through the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Fishing is Fun grants.

The town’s plan originally contemplated removing much of the dead and decaying trees, but some will be left to demonstrate the natural processes of a forest. The park will remain “passive” – without playground equipment and a sprawling bluegrass lawn. It will have benches, a picnic table and a trail that turns into a boardwalk through wetlands. The fate of a proposed wading pool for kids still must be decided.

Basalt Town Manager Bill Efting said the completed project won’t be an urban-style park, although it will be a property that people will be encouraged to use. That means the town must assure the safety of visitors, he said.

Basalt Mayor Rick Stevens said a lot of different people have visions for the park, so it’s natural that the development plan has triggered emotions.

“It’s created kind of a little storm. I don’t think that’s unusual by any means,” he said at a council meeting last month.

But Stevens also predicted the park will be a valuable community asset because the town has the expertise “to do it right.”

The Conservancy wants to help make sure the project is done right. A consultant of the organization is working with the town staff once a week on construction management issues. Beaudry and others hope to work with the council on plans for a second phase of the project, which will include revegetation of the property.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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