Restoration takes Aspen’s Smuggler back to nature
August 23, 2010
ASPEN – When a multiyear effort to repair the Smuggler Mountain open space on the edge of Aspen is finished, hikers and bikers taking in the views from the new network of single-track trails there aren’t likely to notice the results of labors taking place now.
It’s the ultimate irony – the evidence of untold hours of planting and planning, shoveling and garbage hauling disappears into a landscape of saplings and berry bushes pushing skyward through the grass, as if nature, not people, had taken a hand to repair the scarred earth.
But these days, the popular playground flanking town is bustling with big machinery. On Saturday, dozens of locals will spend the day toiling on the open space, transforming another segment of the roads that criss-cross the area back into forest. It is year two on Smuggler for the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, working with the city of Aspen and Pitkin County on the restoration project. In addition to work last summer, RFOV hosted a trail-building project on the open space in July.
On Monday, trucks pulling trailers filled with trees and shrubs ground their way slowly up Smuggler Mountain Road, working their way around the multitude of hikers and mountain bikers who make the steep climb up and down the dirt road part of their routine. The plantings, along with seed-infused straw, will be ready to go for Saturday’s big push.
Already, new single-track options await those who huff and puff their way up the road and into the heart of the open space. Another trail will open before the snow flies.
“To do a restoration like this, it takes significant time, money and effort to make it happen,” said Stephen Ellsperman, city parks and open space director. So far, upwards of $50,000 has been spent, not including man hours, he said.
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The open space, a collection of formerly private parcels on the face of Smuggler, is treated as one property in the management plan that now guides its use. The open space includes 210 acres in all, but it’s about 140 acres that the city and county purchased jointly in late 2005 for $15 million that is seeing most of the work. That land was owned by the late George “Wilk” Wilkinson.
Work on Wilk’s former property is now in its third year. The first summer was dedicated to dismantling and hauling out truckfuls of trailers, buildings, tent platforms and junk that he accumulated on his expansive compound.
“That was a monumental effort just to get that out of here,” said Ellsperman, standing in a small clearing where a decrepit trailer has been replaced by a picnic table that boasts views of three ski areas and the frosty tip of Pyramid Peak in Monday morning’s gathering storm clouds.
Single track beckons down verdant corridors that, just a year ago, were rocky, eroding dirt roads some 12 to 15 feet across.
“After one year, that’s a pretty significant, to be able to erase that,” Ellsperman said, gazing at one reclaimed stretch of dirt.
Not every hint at the mountain’s past will disappear, though. Mines that dot the open space have all been inspected to make sure there’s no danger of collapse or open shafts, but tailings piles won’t be bulldozed.
“What we we’re not trying to do is erase the mining heritage up here,” Ellsperman said, pausing at the site of a former assay operation, where little clay cups called crucibles still litter the ground. Silver ore was heated in the cups to determine its quality.
At the Park Regis, one of the larger mines on the former Wilkinson property, a concrete cap has been placed over the vertical mine shaft and dirt has been shoveled in over the cap. The city parks department has reconstructed the “cribbing” – a timber box that would likely have surrounded the shaft at one time. A metal grate will keep visitors from dropping the remaining 12 feet or so into the shaft, but they will be able to look down into the dark hole and get a sense of the old mine.
A crew equipped with a backhoe lifted the cribbing into place Monday. Saturday’s volunteers will be at work reclaiming a road that goes past the mine site.
Interpretive signs to be placed next year will offer a further glimpse of Smuggler’s mining history.
There is another summer or two of work yet to come, Ellsperman estimated, before the bulk of the restoration is finished.
Then, the work crews and, he hopes, their efforts, will disappear.
“That would be the best compliment of all – if you couldn’t tell what it was,” he said.