Time to comment on Hunter-Smuggler plan

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – The U.S. Forest Service is seeking formal public comment on the Hunter-Smuggler Mountain Cooperative Plan, which details trail and habitat improvements on more than 4,000 acres of national forest on the edge of Aspen.

However, after nearly two years of input as the plan took shape, its drafters are hoping they’ve worked through most of the potential objections in advance.

“I don’t think we’re expecting a lot of comments – it’s been vetted so much,” said Bill Kight, public affairs officer for the White River National Forest.

Time, however, will tell.

The plan, outlining projects to improve wildlife habitat, forest health and recreation on a large scale, is published online at (click on “Project Overview” for a summary of the proposals), and comments will be accepted until April 29, according to the Forest Service. Go to to submit comments online.

The Hunter-Smuggler Mountain Cooperative Plan was a joint effort of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, the Forest Service, Pitkin County and the city of Aspen and included input from the general public, recreation and conservation groups, wildlife specialists and fire managers.

The plan proposes more than 800 acres of potential forest-restoration projects that also can improve wildlife habitat and reduce wildfire danger.

On the recreation front, it proposes 1.7 fewer miles of trail overall by closing off redundant routes but also identifies opportunities for new trail connections. And it proposes improved signs to direct trail users on the various routes in the Smuggler, Hunter Creek and Van Horn Park areas and the creation of better maps.

A Heritage Trail that allows exploration of the mining and homesteading relics in the area is proposed, as is establishing a new singletrack loop in the Hunter Creek Valley for beginning mountain bikers as well as hikers. The plan also calls for exploring the potential for a singletrack mountain-biking trail on the south side of Smuggler Mountain, where users have created the unauthorized bandit route known as the Balcony Trail.

“We want to make sure that we provide an alternative to what is already existing even if it (what’s existing) is illegal,” Kight said.

The south side trail was among the biggest points of contention during the drafting of the plan, according to Martha Moran, recreation staff supervisor with the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service.

“We’re going to do a pretty thorough look at it this summer,” she said.

Meanwhile, the illegal Balcony Trail is posted as closed, though the closure is regularly violated by users, Moran said.

The plan proposes exploring an alignment that may or may not use parts of the Balcony Trail and restoring problem parts of the existing trail to their natural state. An environmental review would include a “no trail” option in the area, the plan notes.

Local conservation group Wilderness Workshop raised some issues with the plan after the draft was released, including the potential for trail that affects bear and elk habitat on the south side of Smuggler.

While the comment period is next for the plan, its various proposals will also be subjected to an environmental assessment before any work commences. Moran said she’s hoping for a streamlined environmental review, given the input that’s already gone into the plan, which could mean the first projects advance later this year.

Moran said she considers the recreational projects within the plan to be a priority, starting with rerouting the Sunnyside Plunge, a steep, eroding trail that connects the Hunter Creek Valley floor to the ridge on the valley’s north side, where Sunnyside is among the network of singletrack trails popular with mountain bikers and others.

Trail repairs in the area where the Sunnyside, Shadyside and Jedi trails, along with Repeater Road, all intersect, is also a priority, Moran said.