Restoration ongoing at Little Annie Basin |

Restoration ongoing at Little Annie Basin

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times
An Aspen Skiing Co.-affiliated group purchased this area on Little Annie Basin for about $8 million to provide space for its Powder Tours and potentially build another cabin.
Aubree Dallas

The large-scale wedding on Little Annie Basin was held three weeks ago, but there’s still unfinished business on the mountain.

The June 14 ceremony in Little Annie Basin, which saw 27,000 square feet of temporary structures built in the basin, left a large patch of exposed earth when the structures were removed. According to the landowner, John Miller, the basin is being repaired by the wedding planner, Kari Bien, a managing director for New York based events-production company Van Wyck and Van Wyck.

Miller received an email from Bien recently saying the field had already been reseeded with native grasses and covered with mulch.

Bien arranged the wedding of Alexandra Steel and James Scott. Steel’s father is Robert K. Steel, the current chairman of the Aspen Institute board of trustees.

Bien was reached Saturday but had no comment, citing company policy. Robert Steel was reached at his home in Aspen on Thursday and had no comment.

“Part of the deal to hold the event was to repair the meadow back to its natural state,” Miller said. “I was up at the basin last week, and the area where the wedding was held still looks pretty exposed. I let the wedding planner (Bien) know the exposed surface soil needs to be watered until the reseeding kicks in. I’m confident they’ll take care of it.”

Miller said he had a similar experience a few years ago when he allowed automaker Dodge to shoot a commercial on his property. Miller said the basin also lost a good portion of ground cover during the Dodge project but that the recovery of the basin went surprisingly well.

“They reseeded right before winter hit,” Miller said. “Once the snowpack melted the following May, you couldn’t tell there had been any reseeding done. It looked just as good as the surrounding basin area that was untouched by the Dodge people.”

According to Mark Paschke, a professor of restoration ecology at Colorado State University, reseeding high-alpine meadows isn’t unheard of in this area by any means. Paschke said with all the high-elevation mining done in the Rocky Mountains, there are several companies that sell local native plant seeds for restoration projects, like the one in Little Annie Basin.

“The best time to seed in that environment is right before the winter snow hits, so probably September,” Paschke said. “Seeds need to go through a true winter before they germinate. It’s nature’s way of keeping plants from germinating in the fall. The important aspects are to select the appropriate species, buy good seed, and cover the seed with mulch if it’s spread on the surface. The best mulch for that environment is wood straw.”

When emailed several pictures of the wedding site after the temporary structures were removed, Paschke’s initial comment was that the area should be easy to reseed.

“But that depends,” he said in a phone interview. “Just seeding that spot may not be enough. I’m speculating here, but there may be an issue with compacted soil.”

Paschke said with all of the tire tracks surrounding the meadow, it appeared that the soil may need to be “ripped.”

“That’s when you have to bring something in to work the soil and break it up,” he said. “Basically, it’s like you need to plow the land. Once they work the soil, the reseeding process should work.”

Tom Cardamone is the former president and chief ecologist at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and helped draft the ecological section of an ordinance governing land use in areas including Little Annie Basin. Cardamone listed three situations that can make reseeding difficult in a high-altitude environment: needle ice, birds and temperature swings.

Needle ice occurs when the top layer of soil becomes saturated with moisture and freezing conditions exist near the soil surface. The cold air draws the moisture up, forming thin needles of ice. Needle ice can tear young seedlings and stop any potential growth.

If the seeds are too close to the soil surface, birds will dig up the seedlings, a favorite food of theirs.

A subalpine meadow that gets direct sunlight like Little Annie Basin can experience wild temperature swings. During summer months, it’s not uncommon to record temperatures near 90 degrees at the basin, only to see the temperatures drop to frost conditions. If the seeds are exposed or germinating, the temperature swings can damage or destroy the seeds.

“Planting the seeds is one thing,” Cardamone said. “Getting them to grow is another.”

Cardamone said now that the wedding is done, the main goal should be restoration.

“Rather than berate the owner, I’d like to see them fix the basin and fix it right,” he said.

The basin was zoned “rural and remote” in the mid 1990s. “Rural and remote” zoning is intended to conserve and protect the natural environment and its resources while allowing for limited recreational uses and limited residential development.

The five temporary structures that were built for the wedding were so large that Pitkin County passed an emergency ordinance on June 17 banning any party tents over 1,000 square feet in rural and remote areas without a commercial permit or an exemption from the county commissioners.

Miller said that no matter what, he intends to see the meadow restored to its natural beauty. Even if the current reseeding doesn’t take and another reseeding is necessary, he’s been assured by Bien that she’ll do whatever it takes to return the basin back to its natural state.

“I’ve been involved with that land for 40 years,” Miller said. “I think I’ve been an excellent custodian of that area. It’s been rough to see some of the relationships with my neighbors get strained from all this. My neighbors are good people. I’ll admit there’s been two occasions now that have gotten away from me in size and scope, but I will see the land put right again. I can guarantee that.”