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Pitkin County commissioner candidates differ on public use

John Colson
Aspen, CO Colorado

PITKIN COUNTY ” The two Pitkin County commissioner candidates for District 5 will readily admit that they don’t disagree on many policy questions facing the county.

But they do differ in one policy area ” the acceptable level of restrictions on public use of county-owned open spaces and trails.

Dee Malone, a one-time candidate for the Aspen City Council who now lives near Redstone, comes down on the side of greater limitations for human users of certain areas in certain circumstances. She termed the differences on the subject between her and her opponent, George Newman of Emma, as “huge.”

“My focus on managing any piece of open space would go straight back to … environmental science,” said Malone, a trained scientist and educator. “If we don’t have ecosystem function, the health of that open-space property is going to decline.” Malone said her main area of concern is for the riparian habitat along local rivers and streams, which she said is dangerously close to disappearing because of increasing development.

“To be safe, my general philosophy would be to err on the side of caution,” she said, meaning she would advocate for a lower level of public uses of open spaces and trails and greater emphasis on reserving those spaces for wildlife, including plant life, ground-nesting birds and other species.

Newman, on the other hand, believes the scales initially should be tilted toward the public’s use of publicly owned lands, except where that use would demonstrably endanger wildlife or other environmental attributes.

“The idea is that there may be multiple uses for these spaces,” Newman said. “My feeling is that those spaces should be available for public use.”

Malone pointed to three specific locales as examples of her concerns ” the Rio Grande Trail along the Roaring Fork River between Rock Bottom Ranch and the Catherine Store Bridge; Filoha Meadows near Redstone, and the North Star Nature Preserve east of Aspen. Each has been the subject of often heated debates concerning restrictions on public access.

At the North Star preserve, Malone was part of a group several years ago agitating to move the “LZ,” or landing zone, for paragliders and hang-gliders flying off of Aspen Mountain and landing in wetlands, which Malone considered an inappropriate use.

The LZ has long been located on the northern half of the property, which is split by the Roaring Fork River, but Malone and her group were worried that the presence of the gliders was disturbing the wildlife, particularly a herd of elk that uses the preserve regularly.

After considerable negotiation, the LZ ultimately was moved eastward, to an area considered less environmentally sensitive but on the same side of the river, and the old LZ was closed off to the public.

Newman, while not a party to the North Star fight, said he has talked with participants who told him Malone “was not very easy to work with,” which he termed “one of the key differences between Dee and myself ” my ability to work more effectively with diverse groups.”

But, he conceded, he does not feel that Malone’s work to reach a compromise on the use of North Star was detrimental, saying that “as it is, it’s fine.”

“I certainly do support the concept that there are parcels of land that should not be open to public use or should be restricted,” he said.

Regarding Malone’s inclination to “err on the side of caution” in favor of restricting public access in some cases, Newman said he feels the public is entitled to use the lands it owns, at least to begin with.

“If it’s being abused, I think we can mitigate it by tightening our controls,” he said.

Specifically, while Malone would extend the closure period of the Rio Grand Trail section near Rock Bottom Ranch, perhaps to July 1, Newman said he has seen no evidence of a need for that. The current closure period is from the end of October through June 1.

And in Filoha Meadows, a recently acquired public parcel near Redstone ” and one that Malone’s home happens to overlook ” Newman also would entertain greater levels of public use than Malone.

In Malone’s view, both North Star and Filoha Meadows take on greater importance because the riparian habitat zones on either side of the public lands have been developed and are the scenes of intensive human activity, which drives away wildlife.

She said both the state Division of Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service had agreed that unrestricted public use of Filoha would “negatively impact wildlife,” and that the nearby community agreed,

But “to say I’m against human access to open space is completely fallacious,” she said. She only opposes human access to places that are increasingly critical to wildlife.

“I don’t want to see a bike trail through sensitive habitat. And I don’t want to see a bike trail through somebody’s back yard,” she said, the latter a reference to a controversy pitting the county against private landowners at one end of the Filoha Meadows property.

“I don’t think it’s the right thing for government to be doing,” she said of efforts to force landowners to yield trail rights-of-way for public use, noting that the county is filled with wide-open, publicly owned terrain known as the White River National Forest.

But to characterize her stance about Filoha as an example of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard), as some have done, she called “outrageous.” She also stated emphatically that she saw no reason, if she were to win the election, to recuse herself from discussions about Filoha.

Newman, on the other hand, feels Malone should abstain from discussions about Filoha, and said that philosophically he would need to look at each open-space use issue individually before he could make any decisions.

Concerning Filoha, he said the current management plan is well-thought out, with guided tours for the short hike to some beaver ponds but which permits the public to wander along the trail that bisects the property without guides.

“I really don’t feel there’s a need for a guide to walk you along a path and help you enjoy the meadows,” he said.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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