Pitco, feds mull Bells’ future | AspenTimes.com

Pitco, feds mull Bells’ future

Janet Urquhart

If the fee demonstration program that helps fund staffing and maintenance at the Maroon Bells expires next year, the services people have come to expect at the popular spot could be scaled back.

Or, local volunteers and other innovative ideas that involve the community in a hands-on way could help pick up the slack.

A lengthy brainstorming session involving U.S. Forest Service representatives, Pitkin County commissioners and others with a stake in Aspen’s best-known scenic attraction produced few concrete answers Wednesday. The formation of a local board that works with the Forest Service to oversee management of the Maroon Bells Recreation Area emerged as the idea carrying the most steam.

“That’s something I’d like to see here,” said Martha Moran, recreation manager with the Aspen Ranger District.

Pitkin County has passed a resolution opposing the federal fee demo program, arguing Congress should adequately fund the agencies that oversee public lands. But with the fee project currently scheduled to expire in the fall of 2005 and Congress unlikely to boost funding to the Forest Service, commissioners want to know what’s going to happen to heavily used places like the Bells.

“We need to know what we’re looking at,” said Commissioner Patti Clapper.

Either the Forest Service would maintain its service levels at the Bells to the detriment of other needs within the Aspen Ranger District, or the agency would look at cutting back at the Bells, predicted Bill Westbrook, district ranger.

“We would have to look seriously at closing facilities, closing campgrounds, reducing services,” he said.

The Forest Service doesn’t have to provide potable water at Maroon Lake and the campgrounds below it, or trash collection, for example. Visitors could pack out their garage and bring their own water, Westbrook said, though he later conceded it would more likely be other areas in the district that suffer, since the Bells attract so many people.

“I just don’t think we can go backward on the services we’re providing,” he said.

“My biggest fear is the other alternative that’s always thrown at us – privatization,” said Commissioner Shellie Roy, who doesn’t want to see a private concessionaire take over management of the recreation area.

Charging the fees are the best bet to keep the Forest Service in charge at the Bells, said Steve Sherwood, director of recreation for Region 2 of the Forest Service. He urged the commissioners to reconsider their resolution opposing the fee program.

The group also heard from Bob and Helen Olivier, participants with the Yankee Boy Regional Conservation Association, which provides volunteer alpine hosts in Yankee Boy Basin outside of Ouray. Citizens formed the group and, with county commissioners there, prodded the Forest Service into lifting a controversial fee demo project in the basin. The volunteers help protect the basin, obviating the need for fees to pay Forest Service staffers.

The White River Interpretive Association already provides plenty of volunteer labor in the Maroon Bells Recreation Area, but it could be pegged to do more if the fee program disappears.

More local efforts to help take care of what Congress should be funding with tax dollars will only perpetuate the inadequate allocation of money to public lands, warned Sloan Shoemaker of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop.

If the public is shut out of the Bells because there isn’t the money to manage the area, Congress would get an earful and respond, he predicted.

“I say the alternative to fee demo is to close the Maroon Bells,” Shoemaker said. “Unless the public gets the opportunity to feel the consequences of these policy decisions, they’re never going to understand it.”

The fee demo program started in the summer of 2000 at the Bells, charging $10 per vehicle headed up to Maroon Lake during the summer and on weekends in September. The fee is charged in the morning and late in the afternoon; from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the lake is closed to private vehicles, and visitors must take a bus. The fare is $5.50.

Fees, including a share of bus fares and camping fees, raised $123,000 last year. The revenues went to maintenance and staffing of the Maroon Bells Recreation Area.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com

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