Rehab complete for Aspen’s favorite playground
September 26, 2012
ASPEN – A six-year restoration effort on one of Aspen’s favorite playgrounds was completed last month by Aspen and Pitkin County.
Crews from the governments along with Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers rehabilitated land formerly owned by George “Wilk” Wilkinson on Smuggler Mountain. Over the years, junked vehicles and equipment were hauled off the site, some of the land was recontoured to a more natural grade, and finally, it was reseeded this summer, according to Gary Tennenbaum, land steward for Pitkin County Open Space and Trails. Grass seed was planted as well as a small amount of shrubbery. Now nature will finish the job.
Pitkin County and Aspen bought roughly 170 acres from Wilkinson for $15 million in December 2005. Wilkinson, who battled the county from the mid-1980s throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s for the right to develop his land, died about nine months later. With other lands acquired on the side and top of Smuggler Mountain, Aspen and Pitkin County own about 240 acres, Tennenbaum estimated. Public lands of the White River National Forest nearly surround the local government holdings.
The restoration of the city and county land is a major accomplishment because Smuggler Mountain is such a centerpiece of recreation for Aspen residents and visitors. Surveys by the open space program show it is the most highly visited place, with visits divided nearly evenly between summer and winter, Tennenbaum said.
Some of the most prized mountain biking and hiking trails cut through the property, which looms over Aspen’s eastern side.
One critical part of the restoration effort was preserving the land’s link with Aspen’s mining history. Instead of mine dumps being cleaned up, they have been left largely undisturbed. Interpretative trails and signs have been placed at the Iowa Shaft, the Park Regent Mine and the Bushwhacker Mine.
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“We didn’t want to lose our mining history up there,” Tennenbaum said.
The city and county will chip away later this year on the Smuggler Forest Management Plan, which addresses forest-health issues separate from the rehabilitation of Wilkinson’s former compound. A contractor will use what is essentially an industrial mower to cut down decadent scrub oak and service trees on about 8 acres on the side of the mountain. The site is along the last major switchback on Smuggler Mountain Road before it starts a long straight-away. The site has been struck by lightning in the past, and fuels were ignited, Tennenbaum said. The Aspen Fire Department pounced on the wildland fire for fear it would threaten structures in Aspen, he said.
The planned project will reduce fuels where wildlands connect with the more urban setting. It also will improve wildlife habitat.
“You will see a big difference from the road,” Tennenbaum said. The work site isn’t visible from Aspen, he said.
The work is expected to start on or about Oct. 6. The road will remain open, though temporary closures on specific days will be required as shrubbery is mowed down. Pitkin County Open Space and Trails is working with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies on interpretative signs describing why the work is necessary and what it will accomplish. Nevertheless, Tennenbaum is braced for possible complaints.
“We have a feeling we’re going to hear from some people about it,” he told the Pitkin County commissioners and the open space program’s board of directors Tuesday.