Pitkin County OKs, pays for full-time forest cops

Wilderness Ranger Eric Tierney restores an illegal campfire ring next to the Snowmass Lake trail while out on patrol in 2017.
Aspen Times file photo

A seasonal partnership between Pitkin County and the U.S. Forest Service to patrol problem open space areas, discourage illegal camping and police illegal off-road vehicles has failed and needs to be changed, officials said Tuesday.

“The issues have gotten more complex and require more collaboration to address,” said Pitkin County Public Works Director Brian Pettet, who praised the recent relationship between the county and the Forest Service as “phenomenal.”

The main problem is the seasonal nature of the job. The federal government has relatively stringent requirements for forest protection officers and it’s difficult to attract part-timers in the Roaring Fork Valley, he said.

This spring, summer and fall, for example, the Forest Service could have received $25,000 from the county’s Open Space and Trails program and $50,000 from the county’s general fund to hire seasonal forest protection officers. The law-enforcement trained officers were to help patrol high-traffic areas such as the Wildwood put-in for the popular North Star Nature Preserve float on the Roaring Fork River and other open space areas, as well as patrol for illegal camping and enforce the county’s ban on unlicensed, off-highway vehicles.

However, some of that money went unclaimed because the Forest Service could not find qualified candidates, Shelly Grail Braudis, recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, told Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday at their weekly work session.

To offset those difficulties, officials with both agencies are proposing that Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails program double its offering to $50,000, bringing the county’s total enforcement contribution to $100,000. The Forest Service would provide the officers with housing and benefits under the proposal.

Braudis said the Forest Service has two people already employed in the area who could begin after commissioners approve the plan.

The Wildwood put-in needs some attention, said Gary Tennenbaum, Open Space and Trails program director. Without a regular Forest Service presence this summer, which had been the case in recent years, the county relied on naturalists from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies to police the parking situation.

“And that’s not in their wheelhouse,” Tennenbaum said. “Wildwood was successful. We need to make it re-successful.”

Pettet said he’s trying to address the issue of off-highway vehicles, which the county has long banned but not enforced until summer 2018.

Commissioner George Newman, who urged Forest Service patrollers in March to write tickets to those who violated the ordinance this summer, asked Braudis how many tickets were written this season. She told him none were given out because violators often had maps or guidebooks saying the practice was legal.

Newman didn’t like that and said the problem will persist until people receive a ticket, post it on social media and others get the message.

“I think we have to get tough,” he said. “Get those ticket books out.”

Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury agreed, saying the intensity of ATV use keeps increasing.

“We need to be strict about the rules,” she said.

The unused-but-already-allocated money from this year will fund the two positions until the end of the year and into next year, though the extra $25,000 from the Open Space program will be approved as part of the 2020 budget cycle.

As of now, the program is only for a year.

“Let’s see how it goes,” Tennenbaum said.