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Skyline closure triggers debate

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Janet Urquhart/Aspen Times file
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ASPEN – Pitkin County open space officials have received an earful about the continued closure of the Skyline Ridge Trail near Snowmass Village this spring, given the quickly receding snowpack.

The input triggered a debate Tuesday about a “floating closure.”

Sky Mountain Park, including the popular Skyline Ridge Trail, is closed to recreational use from Dec. 1 through May 15 to protect wildlife, particularly an elk herd that uses the property, but the early drying out of the trail has tempted some people to violate the closure. Three individuals received citations last weekend, and open space rangers have increased their presence on the property.



Members of the public want to know why the trail isn’t opening early given the conditions, said Anne Rickenbaugh, a member of the county Open Space and Trails board of trustees. The board discussed the closure Tuesday morning, before a joint session with county commissioners later in the day.

“I’ve already had tons of people asking me,” said Gary Tennenbaum, the open space program’s land steward.



During the joint meeting, Commissioner Jack Hatfield, too, questioned the fixed dates of the winter closure.

“Golly, we have to have a discussion about more flexible openings and closings,” he said. “I think there are a lot of variables here and at least we ought to have that conversation.

“It’s clearly not time to open it now,” he added.

The closure dates were established with input from state wildlife officials and are intended to protect elk that use the open space. The land contains winter habitat and a migration corridor. Now-pregnant elk cows continue to occupy the former Droste property, part of Sky Mountain Park. The herd eventually moves across the Owl Creek Valley to calving grounds on Burnt Mountain but hasn’t yet, according to rangers observing the property.

Tennenbaum said he has discussed a “floating closure” for the open space with Kevin Wright, district wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, but basing the closure on the state of the snowpack is tricky. It’s easier to educate the public to abide by a date that doesn’t fluctuate even if it doesn’t correlate precisely with what’s happening on the ground, he added.

“It’s easier to have a date,” Tennenbaum said. “Some years, it might be a little early, some years, it might be a little late.”

Last spring, elk were still on the property when it opened, but lingering snow kept human use to a minimum anyway, he said.

This year, however, sticking to the May 16 reopening might hurt the open space program’s credibility, Rickenbaugh suggested. The opening date appears arbitrary in a year when lack of snow gives elk plenty of room to move. The strict enforcement makes rangers look like “bureaucrats” in the eyes of the public, she said, though she also advocated an increased ranger presence on the property.

“I think the natural world is much more flexible than the bureaucratic world,” said board member Hawk Greenway, calling for flexibility with winter closures. He cited the paved Brush Creek Trail, stretching from Highway 82 to Snowmass Village, as an example. It is closed through March 31.

“When we don’t have a severe winter, I think we have to have the flexibility to open it,” he said.

If most of the elk have moved off the former Droste property before mid-May, Greenway suggested the county should be able to open the area early.

That’s a difficult call, Tennenbaum responded.

“How many elk does it take to say it stays closed?” he said.

“The strength of our whole management effort really hinges upon our ability to take these closures seriously,” added Dale Will, Open Space and Trails director.

Wildlife cameras will be installed to help monitor animals, Tennenbaum said, calling for a few years of observations and a better understanding of the mule deer population in the park before any decisions are made.

“I don’t feel confident recommending a floating closure yet,” he said.

In the meantime, board member Tim McFlynn urged efforts to better educate the public on the need for the closure and staying off Skyline Ridge Trail.

“Ultimately, self-policing is the only thing that works,” he said.

janet@aspentimes.com


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