New director, same direction for Aspen’s Independence Pass Foundation
RIDE FOR THE PASS
It’s a sure sign that summer is coming when it’s time for the annual Ride for the Pass.
Independence Pass Foundation will host its signature fund raising event for the 21st consecutive year on Saturday, May 16. Competitive racers will launch from the winter closure gate 5 miles east of Aspen at 10 a.m. Recreational riders will start at 10:10 a.m. There will also be a non-timed category this year.
The ride attracts up to 500 riders to the spectacular setting because the road remains off limits to vehicles. The route goes 10 miles to the ghost town of Independence, climbing about 2,300 feet to an elevation of 10,967 feet. There are aid stations along the way and there will be a party with free beer at the St. Regis after the ride.
The entry fee is $45 for an individual if done online by midnight May 13. It’s $50 after the early deadline. The family fee is $75 if done by May 13, $80 after. Race day registration ends at 9:30 a.m.
Go to http://www.independencepass.org/ride/ for more information and to register.
The Independence Pass Foundation has a new hand on the wheel but the same devotion to Aspen’s signature mountain saddle.
Mark Fuller stepped down this spring as executive director of the nonprofit organization after nearly 20 years in the position. Karin Teague took over April 1. Teague is a former environmental lawyer, former Basalt Town Council member and former president of Wilderness Workshop’s board of directors.
Independence Pass Foundation was founded in 1989 by Bob Lewis, a longtime Aspen environmentalist and educator, who died in 2005.
When the road was hacked out of the granite during the silver-mining boom era of the 1870s and ’80s, environmental harmony wasn’t the highest priority. More than a century later, Lewis was concerned about the ecological impact — eroding soils above and below road cuts in some particularly vulnerable places, landscape scars and loss of vegetation.
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Lewis was determined to make amends for the work. He created the foundation and oversaw its first effort to repair what’s known as the Weller Cut, an area along Highway 82 near Weller Campground.
The organization gathered steam and grew to the point where it needed an executive director by 1996, when Fuller was hired. By then, it was working on the most ugly environmental scar along the road at the last long switchback before the summit.
“Stabilization of the top cut has been sort of the headlining thing,” Fuller said.
The most visible project
Parts of the project were pursued every other year from 1994 through 2014. The foundation would “build up its war chest” for a year and then pursue a project the following year, Fuller said. It spent $2.5 million on repairing the top-cut landscape. Partners such as the Colorado Department of Transportation probably spent an equal amount, he said.
Rock walls were built to prevent the toe of the slope from unraveling. The barren slopes above and below the cut were stabilized with mesh and anchors. The soils were replenished and planted with native vegetation. Compost blankets were laid on the lower slopes to prevent erosion.
The foundation has always drawn from a diverse pool of people to get the job done. Everyone from Aspen schoolchildren to inmates from the Buena Vista Correctional Facility help with planting and landscaping work on the projects. People who don’t get their hands dirty still play a big role in the foundation’s efforts. Hundreds of skiers and cyclists participate in the nonprofit’s signature events — Ride for the Pass and Ski for the Pass.
While the work on the top cut is the headliner, the foundation has a lengthy list of accomplishments. Last summer it spearheaded the reclamation of the area around the Upper Lost Man Trail, also known as the Linkins Lake Trail. A pull-off adjacent to the trailhead was a stockpile for rock and dirt that was used on the top-cut work. The stockpile area was cleaned up.
Over a period of several years, the foundation removed old metal snow fencing from the area around the summit, using everything from a helicopter to Forest Service mule teams to haul out debris.
(Go to http://www.independencepass.org for more on Independence Pass Foundation’s accomplishments.)
The organization’s operating budget was around $235,000 in 2013 and 2014. It will be about $196,000 this year. Special campaigns are held to raise funds for projects such as improvements to the winter-closure-gate area.
Teague will keep momentum
Teague aims to keep the momentum going. The foundation will work with the Forest Service, the Colorado Department of Transportation and Pitkin County to undertake the first phase of a project to improve the appearance and usefulness of the winter-closure gate area east of Aspen.
“We should have an entrance worthy of that magnificent pass,” Teague said.
There will be a kiosk with information about the pass and its environment. Parking will be better-defined, and the look that Fuller once described as “semi-industrial wasteland” featuring concrete barriers will be cleaned up.
The foundation also is setting its sights on completing work atop the pass.
“The summit is going to have to be dealt with,” Teague said. She ticked off its ills: Parking is a free-for-all, lack of defined trails has led to braiding on the north of Highway 82, and work on the trail south of the highway must be completed.
Teague said “smarter and better-defined parking” will be designated in the lot surrounding the bathrooms. A “peak finder” sign will be installed that shows the names and elevations of the big peaks visible at the summit. Interpretative signs about the ecology and history of the area will be erected.
The best office
Fuller has been fortunate to have Independence Pass as his office five days or more per week from midsummer into late fall. He is intimately familiar with the environment and believes it remains pretty healthy despite challenges such as climate change. He has anecdotal evidence of a warmer, drier climate — such as a lower success rate for planted vegetation compared with 20 years ago. But the diversity of vegetation has helped the pass avoid the bark-beetle infestation that wiped out parts of lodgepole-pine forests along Interstate 70 and in Grand County.
“You’re not going to get acre after acre of dead vegetation,” Fuller said.
On the other hand, the timber stands that exist are all of the same mature age and condition, which could make them susceptible to fire and disease.
“In some respects, some fire would be good,” he said.
Fuller’s adventures on the pass leave him in awe of its flora and fauna and its rich human history. He once witnessed unparalleled beauty off the beaten track in a place he named Paradise Plateau and, not far from there, stumbled on a mining cabin abandoned in the 1950s with everything from bedding to silverware in place.
The Independence Pass Foundation won’t be revealing Fuller’s secret stashes, but Teague said a goal of hers is to start more programs that do everything from teaching Aspen schoolchildren about the pass’s history to guiding tours focused on wildflowers and birds. She’s excited about the possibilities of both the physical work still to come and the educational opportunities.
“I have a deep love of the place,” Teague said. “It’s an amazing, living laboratory.”
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