Plans for Maroon Lake visitors’ center criticized
Local residents lobbied the U.S. Forest Service Monday to pull the plug on plans to build a visitors’ center at Maroon Lake.
The lobbying effort was directed at a special team of federal bureaucrats who are helping local forest officials determine if the value of the proposed $1.3 million visitors’ center is worth the cost.
Representatives of special-interest groups that the Forest Service identified as “stakeholders” in the Maroon Lake redevelopment plan were invited to share their opinions on the project.
Aspen District Ranger Jim Upchurch, who organized the meeting, said the input might have been “skewed.”
“They were opposed to the first phase,” said Upchurch about those attending the meeting. “Of course they’re going to be opposed to the next phase.”
He said he didn’t know whether the citizens who attended were representative of the public as a whole.
The visitors’ center is the last piece of a $6 million redevelopment project that started in 1995. The Forest Service has already constructed a new entrance station and relocated the main parking lot downvalley from Maroon Lake.
It is in the process of completing a $1.4 million bathroom and bus stop. That facility was built mostly underground, creating a bunker effect. The one visible face was covered with fake rocks, leading critics to label it the “Flintstone house.”
The visitors’ center was supposed to be a companion underground facility. It was proposed as a place where visitors could learn more about wilderness and the environment, get information from forest rangers, take shelter from storms and buy items from a gift shop.
The project has been controversial because the area at the base of the Maroon Bells is one of the most special places for Aspen residents and visitors.
Supporters, such as project manager Rich Doak, have claimed the center is necessary to properly educate the hordes of people who visit the area.
Critics contend the Forest Service has gone overboard with the project and created a complex that invites industrial tourism.
Dottie Fox, a member of Aspen Wilderness Workshop’s board of directors, claimed the project is bigger than the plan the Forest Service took to local residents in the mid-1990s. Fox, who participated in Monday’s meeting with the Forest Service team, said opposition was widespread.
“We gave them an earful,” said Fox. “Most of the people agreed that we don’t need anything more up there. There’s enough there.”
Another resident who attended, Aspenite Annette Keller, questioned whether the project was being pursued because it is needed or simply because the money is available.
“The thought that the Forest Service should tell us that we need to have them construct this project for the purpose of interpreting the wilderness for us is the most pretentious idea I can imagine,” Keller wrote in a letter to the editor. “Are they really doing all this for us?”
Fox said Forest Service officials explained Monday that the $1.3 million available must be spent on a new building, not for other capital improvements that are needed at Maroon Lake.
Keller couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday, but her letter urged people to call Upchurch to lobby against the visitors’ center.
Upchurch said the official public comment period is over. It was actually held before work began in the mid-1990s. He and White River National Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle will decide the fate of the visitors’ center after reviewing the report by the special team that visited the site and met with local citizens Monday.
Upchurch said the team will come up with alternatives, but won’t be involved in decision making.
One option the Forest Service is pursuing is a partnership with the Aspen Skiing Co. and Hines Development for a visitors’ center and retail outlet at Highlands Village.
Highlands Village is envisioned as a staging area for at least half the buses that transport visitors to Maroon Lake during the summer and fall. That activity is seen as one way to draw attention and foot traffic to the new village near the bottom of Maroon Valley.
Victor Gerdin, mountain planner for the Skico, met with Forest Service officials yesterday to discuss their specific needs. Skico officials will “crunch numbers” to see if it’s economically feasible to provide space for a visitors’ center and possibly staff an affiliated retail store.
“I think we’d like to work with everybody as long as we don’t lose money doing it,” Gerdin said.
The decision by Upchurch and Ketelle about the visitors’ center could be made this month.
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