Wilderness Workshop’s trail efforts incense Pitkin County officials
December 3, 2017
Wilderness Workshop is trying to stop the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail by spreading propaganda and misinformation, a majority of Pitkin County commissioners said recently.
"They have started to portray their partners as their enemies, is part of what I'm feeling," Commissioner Rachel Richards said. "And they are fundraising off of saying 'Pitkin County's a bad group. Pitkin County doesn't care about the environment.'
"You heard a number of their members say, 'We're not going to support renewal of the Open Space and Trails fund. We're anti-trail now. We don't want the county building more trails.'"
The executive director of Wilderness Workshop — an environmental group that has been based in the Roaring Fork Valley for more than 50 years — acknowledged using vague language at one point that was misinterpreted, but said the group is not against the trail up the Crystal River Valley.
"I think that there are some misunderstandings about what our advocacy is provoking and how we're doing that," Sloan Shoemaker said. "We've tried to be clear that we believe there is a public benefit to the trail.
"Our job is to advocate for wildlife and habitat. That's the basis from which we've approached this."
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Richards' comments were made Nov. 14 at a commissioner work session about the Healthy Community Fund. Every year about this time, the county distributes the fund — which comes from a property tax mill levy — to mostly nonprofits in the valley that support health and human service programs, as well as cultural, environmental and other efforts that benefit the community.
This year, a citizens' committee — which annually selects the recipients — awarded more than $2.2 million to nearly 70 different agencies, including $20,000 to Wilderness Workshop. The five-member Board of County Commissioners must sign off on the awards before they can be handed out, which prompted Board Chairman George Newman to speak up.
"I do have an issue with one of these agencies," Newman said. "All of these agencies should be working with the county to address the needs of the community. And in the past I've seen that with Wilderness Workshop, but most recently I've seen them not in partnership but (encouraging) a divisiveness among the community members."
Newman accused Wilderness Workshop of using "slanted and biased reports" about the proposed portion of the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail in the Crystal River Valley, and ignoring more up-to-date information gathered by Pitkin County and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.
"I'm having a hard time supporting a group that is basically in opposition to us and not collaborating with us," Newman said. "I don't think funds should go to us getting kicked in the butt for trying to do the right thing."
Commissioner Patti Clapper said she leaned toward agreeing with Newman because she's noticed a different tenor to Wilderness Workshop's comments about the trail than she's heard with previous issues.
"I'm not against disagreement with us," Clapper said. "It's the manner that they do it. In this case, there's just something not there this time and it makes me concerned."
Richards was particularly incensed about an internet missive from Wilderness Workshop saying a meeting about the trail in Carbondale earlier this year was the public's only chance to comment on the project. At that time, public comment had been open for months and would remain open for another month, she said.
"It's been all about stopping the trail," she said. "They should have a declared position — 'All we want to do is stop the trail. We don't care about the safety of the people on the roads.' It's been so one-sided."
Richards also criticized Wilderness Workshop's recent comments "attacking" the city of Aspen's efforts to deal with water rights, which she likened to Russian propaganda on Facebook.
Gary Tennenbaum, executive director of the Open Space and Trails Program, said Wilderness Workshop hasn't been collaborative with the county on the trail.
"Wilderness Workshop has basically taken a very anti-trail position on the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail," he said. "We're not collaborating all that well on (it). It's their perspective to do what they want."
Shoemaker said he takes the blame for the internet post about public comment and the misunderstanding it provoked. He said he was "imprecise with language" and meant to say that the meeting was the only opportunity for the public to officially verbally comment on the trail proposal.
"That's where the gap opens up and how you interpret that," he said. "Our point was it was the only chance for an open public hearing where people could speak. (We) saw value in the community hearing each other."
Shoemaker, however, acknowledged that the post was "unclear" and interpreted by some as an attempt by Wilderness Workshop to be misleading. It wasn't, he said, noting that he sent out a correction and an apology note to the county board and officials with the county's Open Space and Trails Program.
Further, he said Wilderness Workshop officials have reached out to members of the Open Space program and board, which is taking the lead on planning for the trail, as well as the county board, in an effort to meet and express their specific concerns about the trail.
"We're all mature enough to have different points of view and legitimate sources of disagreement," he said.
Asked if Wilderness Workshop simply wants to stop the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail, Shoemaker was unequivocal.
"No, we do not," he said. "That's what I'm talking about with these misunderstandings."
The organization wants the trail, but it wants it to be routed through the least environmentally sensitive areas and away from wildlife habitat, Shoemaker said.
And any lack of collaboration should be blamed on the process, he said.
"There hasn't been a collaboration because the process has not been set up that way," Shoemaker said. "I'm not sure the applicability of that terminology.
"The county has a proposal and they've asked for comment and feedback. We've participated in the process they designed. I'm not sure where collaboration fits into that."
Tennenbaum said the county wants to protect wildlife and sensitive habitat, too.
He also pointed out that the trail's route through the Crystal River Valley has not yet been determined. When it is, perhaps in January, that proposed alignment will trigger another round of public comment, he said. In addition, if any of the trail's proposed alignment crosses U.S. Forest Service land, it will prompt yet another environmental impact study that will require public comment as well.
In other words, nothing's been decided yet, Tennenbaum said.
"In the end, we all just want to work better together," he said.
Shoemaker agreed, saying he "absolutely" wants to collaborate with the county on the trail's alignment.
"Here's the bottom line," he said. "It's those closest to you where conflict hurts the most."
Commissioners Steve Child and Greg Poschman, who both acknowledged ties to Wilderness Workshop at the meeting last month, defended the organization, saying it deserved the benefit of the doubt for the many positive impacts it has produced over the past five decades.
"It's an important organization here, so I don't want to get angry at them for this one instance considering the weight of all they've done for our community," said Poschman, who produced a short film for the organization's 50th anniversary.
So, at the end of their discussion Nov. 14, commissioners did not block Wilderness Workshop from receiving the Healthy Community Fund's $20,000 for 2018, which specifically is for air- and water-quality monitoring and discouraging oil and gas development in Pitkin County. They did, however, ask the organization to provide results of those efforts, which Shoemaker said would happen.