Rules for nuptials at Bells under fire | AspenTimes.com

Rules for nuptials at Bells under fire

ASPEN ” The U.S. Forest will review its rules this winter on letting wedding bells ring at the Maroon Bells after hearing concerns from a watchdog group.

The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District started renting an amphitheater near Maroon Lake for weddings and other special events this summer. People jumped at the opportunity to rent the spectacular setting. There were 15 weddings ” with another planned this weekend ” and a handful of special events, such as an Aspen Institute gathering, according to Martha Moran, recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.

“The people that are getting married love it,” said Moran. And with good reason, the majestic Maroon Bells dominate the view from the amphitheater seats.

The amphitheater is marketed on the White River National Forest website. It rents for $150 for two hours. There is a limit of 100 people, and wedding receptions are prohibited.

Two other sites ” the wedding knoll at Stein’s Meadow and the picnic area at the East Maroon trailhead ” also are rented for special events, each for $75.

“Keep in mind that any event held on Forest Service land must be conducted with the least impact possible,” the agency’s website says.

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A citizens’ group called Free the Bells wants to reinforce that philosophy. Representatives of the group met with Moran and Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Irene Davidson during the summer to discuss concerns about renting the amphitheater.

“We’re not saying ‘no weddings,'” said Howie Mallory, a member of the group.

Instead, the organization wanted to remind the Forest Service of prior pledges to avoid commercialization of the Bells’ facilities.

Free the Bells was created early this decade to scale back and alter the Forest Service’s plans for facilities near Maroon Lake. The organization convinced the federal agency in 2004 to soften architectural features and increase vegetation around a new 2,600-square foot restroom building, dubbed the “├╝ber-toilet.”

Free the Bells also persuaded the Forest Service to scrap plans for a 5,000 square foot visitors center. The agency constructed a 500-square-foot visitor contact station instead.

Free the Bells remains an unofficial steward of the Bells area, Mallory said. Members heard enough complaints about some of the weddings this summer that it felt it needed to voice the concerns to the Forest Service, he said.

Everything in Aspen is getting “bigger and better,” including the weddings at the Bells. “We’ve gotten weddings on steroids,” Mallory said.

Free the Bells lobbied foresters to consider stricter limits on the number of people attending weddings. It also wants the use of temporary facilities, like tents, prohibited.

The organization isn’t objecting to the use of the amphitheater, as long as it is done within bounds. Mallory recalled that the Forest Service relocated an old parking lot away from that area in the 1990s so that hikers returning from Crater Lake and the wilderness beyond wouldn’t see a glistening sea of chrome. Hikers shouldn’t have to view white wedding tents, either, he said.

While Free the Bells wants weddings toned down, leaders of Wilderness Workshop are wedding crashers. While the organization hasn’t formally weighed in on the wedding debate, it feels the Forest Service shouldn’t be “forced to get into the wedding facilities business,” Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker said. “It’s not mission central to what the Forest Service ought to be doing.”

The agency is forced to seek ways to make money because an inadequate amount of funds reaches the ranger district level, he said.

Wilderness Workshop is opposed to the commercialization of public land, said Development Director Dave Reed. Marketing sites for weddings is a step in that direction.

“It’s kind of like the Forest Service is being reduced to holding the equivalent of bake sales to pay for its basic operations,” Reed said.

Moran said the district staff will work on a business plan for the Maroon Bells area this winter. The Maroon Bells is one of the special areas where the Forest Service is allowed to collect fees to raise revenues for the operations. Visitors to the Bells paid about $182,000 during the 2006 fiscal year.

Moran said citizens’ input on management of the special area is always welcome. “It’s good to have a Free the Bells to keep us sensitive,” she said.