Through the trees
June 28, 2005
Aspen’s history is a dense saga – a multiple-plot short story that can bewilder the reader trying to follow all of the action. Its human players have been and still tend toward the colorful, creative and adventuresome.
Aspen’s trees are their own characters too, stubbornly distinct and continually rising alongside the city’s buildings. Around town is an eclectic mixture of native and introduced trees. Streets are lined with towering narrow-leaf cottonwoods. Also sprouting throughout the neighborhoods are silver maple, white poplar, flowering crabapple, box elder, black locust, lilac, blue spruce, bristlecone pine and various species of juniper, among many others. Oh, and let’s not forget the one our town is named for, Populus tremuloides.The town’s name evokes images of aspen leaves shuddering in the glow of a crisp fall morning, and snow-basted ski runs edged by thick stands of the white-trunked trees. Quaking aspens are a natural part of the montane forests that venture up the mountains from town, but with some human assistance, a multitude now grow right in the urban core.Aspen didn’t always have this forest sensibility. Photographer John Fielder has helped us understand Colorado’s shifting landscape through his book, “Colorado: 1870-2000,” in which photos taken more than a century ago by William Henry Jackson are partnered with Fielder’s modern-day images taken from the same vantages. Comparing Jackson’s black and white blasts from the past to Fielder’s color counterparts, it’s hard not to shake one’s head.
Consider the classic photo of the late 1800s view of Aspen from lower Red Mountain, and compare it with the same view now. Today’s soft, forested texture contrasts sharply with the stark landscape and ramshackle structures of the late 19th century. The changes in Aspen’s plant life mirror the town’s historic eras, from mining boom and quiet years to tourist resort and real estate Mecca. From the frenetic mining era, which stripped the town and its environs of trees, Aspen gradually acquired a more settled, permanent flavor. As Aspenites put down roots, they planted trees and bushes.Tree-historic AspenOften I am tormented by wondering how this place looked before it was settled, before “us.” Turning the pages of Fielder’s brilliantly simple volume reveals both concise differences and broad impressions. For example, the bare sagebrush terrace on the north side of the Roaring Fork, in the foreground of the Jackson photo, later became the Willoughby Way neighborhood where I grew up. Then there is Aspen’s general transformation to a lush green garden of a town.I’ve grown to admire both the stately cottonwoods that have occupied the Roaring Fork Valley floor and the previous, more austere native landscape of sagebrush “steppe” (a plain without trees). In this makeover, we have shifted from an arid, open setting to one of water-dependence and busy beautification. It’s not that I don’t like lush environments and trees. But seeing the old photos is consoling for someone who seeks a detailed explanation and visceral reminder of where this town’s plot began.
We can still glimpse a pre-settlement Aspen landscape in places like the Ute Cemetery, the perimeter grounds of the Aspen Institute and the open spaces around the Airport Business Center (including the site of the Burlingame housing development).I spent my childhood along the Roaring Fork River, downstream from town and Hallam Lake. To get to the river, I ran down a 50-foot hillside from the upper terrace of the valley floor. I skipped and dashed through bushes of serviceberry, chokecherry, and Gambel oak, with a dappled understory of snowberry and pink explosions of wild rose. Clusters of cottonwoods offered shade and perches for our treehouses. The trail spit me out on the Rio Grande railroad right of way (now the Rio Grande trail). From here I had several easy routes to the river, through a mellow mosaic of moisture-loving willows, alders, cottonwoods, and blue spruce.Now, when I do the same trek, I’m astonished by the bushes that have created a tangled thicket on the hillside. Along the river, for every inch of forward progress, I’m further entrapped by the shrubs and willows, like a dense green spider web. The cottonwoods form a giant canopy over the bike path, giving me a funny feeling that in my adulthood, I’m actually more dwarfish than I was as a kid. It’s not supposed to feel this way!
Looking at this same place in the foreground of the circa 1891 photo, I’m transported into a different time and landscape. The Willoughby Way terrace, now thriving with buildings, lawns, trees, and roads, was once bare sagebrush steppe.Since ‘we’ arrivedWhen prospectors first arrived in the Aspen area in 1879 from Leadville, they staked claims and built a few log cabins and mining shafts with wood from the river corridors and hillsides. By the time the city was officially founded in 1881, a sawmill was running 14 hours per day. The mill became the city’s second largest industry. Actual mining activities hadn’t yet taken off, given the lack of a smelter and the high cost of transporting ore (Until the trains came, ore went by mule to Leadville). The boom was in building. Sound familiar?
By 1885, there was a brick factory, planing mill, several sawmills, and the smelter. More than 1,000 homes had been built. In 1887 progress chugged into Aspen in the form of the two railroads. By 1893 the town contained 10,000 people. The hillsides were starting to look worse for the wear from lumbering activities.After the silver boom went bust, the settlers who stayed in Aspen planted trees, many of which are now the elders of our community forest. These town residents knew that the native river-bottom species would thrive, and so they planted lines of narrow-leaf cottonwood trees along the street grid. They established an impressive network of irrigation ditches to nourish both trees and fields, and cottonwoods took hold along the ditches as well. By 1930, the town’s population had dropped to 700. There wasn’t much in the way of new tree planting, but Aspen Mountain was reclaiming itself, as wildflowers and shrubs took root and bloomed around the mining scars.Post-WW IIThe early ski era brought new vegetative changes to the surrounding mountains, especially Aspen Mountain. The original Roch Run was cut on Aspen Mountain in 1937, tracing parts of today’s Ruthie’s, Roch and Corkscrew runs. It foretold the ski slope shapes that are now so hard-wired on the landscape and our brains that it seems far-fetched to imagine our ski mountains as fully forested. The cultural renaissance that began in the 1950s stimulated more building and landscaping of the town.
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More recently, with the condominium explosion in the 1970s and the second-home trend that followed, Aspenites have cultivated a rustic mountain style of landscaping, especially adorned with blue spruce and aspens. One result is an unhealthy and crowded collection of trees in the 30-year age class. Just as we can read tree rings to glean moisture-year information, so can we read “tree ages” for a barometer of activity in Aspen.Over these historical eras, Aspen has grown thick with trees. The cottonwoods planted in the original settlement phase, some with more than 100 years in their trunks, are nearing the end of their lifespans. For a spatial perspective, take a look at trees planted next to historic buildings. The Aspen Community Church, built in 1890 as the First Presbyterian Church, is bordered by several cottonwoods, two of which tower above the 60-foot-high church itself. An early photo of the church shows it with nary a tree or bush nearby. Now, the edifice is softened, even hidden, by heaven-seeking members of Aspen’s over-mature urban forest.
What next?Our crowded community of trees is entering an era of decay and increased susceptibility to insect attack and disease. Prescribed burns, clear-cutting, logging, restoration, and selective thinning are forest management strategies used on our vast public lands. But what about in our bustling city?As a member of my own homeowner association’s landscape committee, I’ve discovered that vegetation management is a hotly contested topic. Residents have widely divergent and strongly held opinions about what is aesthetic, whether to have native species, how to irrigate (not to mention how much), what to spray for protection against insects, and so on.These issues and preferences pertain to Aspen’s entire community forest, too. Will sagebrush steppe remnants be honored and protected for their natural legacy and habitat value? What will the transition from our many elderly cottonwoods and over-crowded areas look like? Will continued development pressures limit our future options for a healthy community forest? In one current example, two robust century-old lilac trees are facing destruction at the soon-to-be redeveloped Conner property next to Aspen City Hall.
Stephen Ellsperman, the city’s deputy director of parks, likens these questions and the next phase in the town’s urban forest to one of caretaking our natural and cultural history.”What should the community forestry matrix be in the future?” he asks.The thoughtful shaking of his head conveys the responsibility he feels, knowing that Aspen’s history and future rest not only in its mountains but also in its plant communities. As part of daily business, the city removes hazardous trees, trims and prunes healthy trees, monitors insects and diseases, and tries to educate the public about Aspen’s urban forest. The horticultural activities of the city and its citizens will take Aspen into the future to more coveted photographs, including those that will sit side by side with Jackson’s and Fielder’s in the 22nd century. Kristine Crandall is a freelance writer originally from Aspen and now living in Basalt. Lately, she has found herself muttering the mantra: “Bring Back the Sagebrush.”