Pitco turns to volunteers for help at Maroon Bells | AspenTimes.com

Pitco turns to volunteers for help at Maroon Bells

The Pitkin County commissioners agreed yesterday to support a committee of local volunteers and county officials that would manage the Maroon Lake visitor site.The decision was made to bolster the understaffed and underfunded White River division of the U.S. Forest Service, which manages Maroon Lake and the surrounding area. It is hoped that managing the site with volunteers will save money and improve public relations for the Forest Service.The White River forest is the most visited national forest in the United States, but ranked only 25th in federal funding last year.Over the past few years, the Forest Service has maintained the Maroon Bells site through the help of a controversial “fee demo” program that charges visitors to the scenic mountains. The U.S. Senate voted to stop the fee demo program after next year, but the House is currently considering a bill to reintroduce the program.Either way, the Forest Service, with the support of Pitkin County, will put together a committee this fall to oversee the finances and operations of the Maroon Lake site beginning next summer. The committee will develop a yearly budget and set a three-to-five-year strategic plan for the site. The committee’s recommendations will require the final approval of U.S. Forest Ranger Bill Westbrook.The White River Interpretive Association will take the lead on the committee, although county officials and possibly local business officials will likely join the group. The association is a nonprofit organization whose volunteers work trails and man various sites in the White River forest, including the Bells.”Our goal [in forming this committee] is to face the crisis in funding within the Forest Service and create a new frontier of Forest Service management,” said White River Interpretive Association spokeswoman Marcia Johnson.Along with setting the finances for management of the Bells, the committee will also work to improve relations between the public and the Forest Service. Maroon Lake, which attracts around 150,000 visitors a year, has seen its share of controversy in recent years, most notably a dispute over the buildings used to house toilets on the site.”The impact [of visitors] on county services like local roads, restaurants and hotels is so big,” Commissioner Dorothea Farris said, “that it’s clear the community absolutely needs to be involved in this process.”The commissioners agreed to support the formation of the committee and participate in the planning and implementation of its recommendations.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com

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