U.S. Forest Service’s role diminishes | AspenTimes.com

U.S. Forest Service’s role diminishes

ASPEN ” The U.S. Forest Service’s role in Aspen continued to shrink this week with the closure of its visitor center for fall and winter.

The Forest Service closed the doors in its Aspen office on Monday. It is unknown when the visitor center will reopen in the spring or what hours it will be staffed during the busy summer season, agency spokeswoman Sally Spaulding said Tuesday.

The Forest Service used to keep its Aspen office open to the public year-round. That changed in recent years when it closed in late December then reopened in spring. New Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Irene Davidson decided to push up the closure date this fall to coincide with the start of the agency’s fiscal year on Oct. 1, Spaulding said.

Davidson determined that it didn’t make sense to pay someone in Aspen to wait for people to walk through the door with questions, Spaulding said. The number of visitors didn’t justify the expenditure, she said.

That means someone in the upper valley ” like a local resident seeking a permit to collect firewood in the National Forest or an out-of-state hunter with questions about backcountry roads ” now must drive 30 miles to Carbondale to see to a ranger.

The Carbondale office is open to the public Monday through Friday throughout the year. Spaulding said the agency didn’t see the need to duplicate all services in the two branches.

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The reduction of the Aspen visitor center to summer hours is the latest in a series of steps that have diminished the agency’s role in the upper valley. The Aspen and Sopris Ranger districts consolidated in 2004. That reduced the number of district rangers from one to two, and reduced the time that top official spent in Aspen. The consolidation also reduced staff.

One critic said the moves make it more difficult for residents to interact with their public land stewards. Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the local environmental organization Wilderness Workshop, said the Forest Service’s motto is protecting the land and serving the people.

“I don’t see them serving the people much anymore,” Shoemaker said.

While Forest Service officials contend that the agency needs to become more efficient and operate like a business, Shoemaker said cuts in services are the result of funding problems. The federal government has forced the Forest Service to spend more of its funds on firefighting and prevention efforts. That forces the agency “to rob Peter to pay Paul,” he said.

The policy hits the White River National Forest particularly hard because it is one of the most popular for recreational uses, but funds for recreation aren’t making it to the district level.

“To be fair, there is probably some fat that needs to be thinned,” Shoemaker said. But he suspects the level of staff and budget cuts harm the agency’s ability to adequately supervise the sprawling Aspen-Sopris District, which includes lands from Independence Pass to west of Carbondale, and from south of the Maroon Bells to the upper Fryingpan Valley.

Shoemaker believes the Forest Service’s actions point to the agency selling its land in Aspen and reducing its presence even further. “We all know you don’t get back into Aspen once you pull out,” he said.

The Forest Service has considered plans for more than a decade to sell at least part of its lucrative site at Seventh and Hallam in Aspen. Pitkin County and Aspen officials once proposed swapping land. The deal would have allowed the governments to use the Forest Service site for affordable housing; the federal agency would have received land west of town on Highway 82 for a new visitor center. The status of that proposal is unknown.

Spaulding said the next step in the consolidation is to combine the Aspen and Sopris branches under one roof, probably in a new building at a centralized site the Forest Service owns in El Jebel. Building an office and visitor center there would allow the agency to reduce its role in Aspen and Carbondale.

The agency could sell all or part of the site in Aspen. It could retain a sliver of land for a reduced office or explore a partnership for a combined visitors center, possibly with the Aspen Chamber of Commerce.

Spaulding said there is an “idea” for the new centralized office but no “plan” yet.

The Forest Service continues to devote considerable resources to maintaining the Maroon Bells facilities. There are no signs that will change.

However, there is a precedent in the Roaring Fork Valley for the Forest Service to eliminate a visitors center. The forest supervisor’s office closed its doors to the public this summer, effectively evolving strictly into an administrative office. The Forest Service trained assistants and stationed them at the Glenwood Springs Chamber of Commerce’s office to address questions from the public. The public can no longer meet with a ranger in Glenwood.

Shoemaker said the solution is for Congress to fund the organization adequately, and for the agency to forward enough funds to the district level.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.

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