‘Friends of Hunter Creek?’
In 1988, FREE HUNTER CREEK was emblazoned on T-shirts and bumper stickers. Hardly a week went by the next four years without a BOCC or Court hearing, a front-page article, a lead editorial, a full-page ad announcing a picnic or ski-in, or an incident of harassment on our public roads and trails. Today, subject only to formal BOCC approval, Pitkin County and the Friends of Hunter Creek have finally secured perpetual rights of public access from Aspen to the nearby Hunter Creek Valley – the back yard of Aspen – and to the pristine 82,450-acre Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness beyond. Wisely, in my view, the county, the Friends, and all of the affected Red Mountain landowners settled for limited rather than unlimited public access. In so doing, the interests of all parties were harmonized so as to preserve as much as possible the sanctity of this very special place – for tomorrow’s flora and fauna, as well as for all who find time for a lunch-hour walk or ski, an afternoon ride, a day or two of hiking or fishing, a summer or winter hut trip, a week of hunting, or an extended adventure into permanently protected wilderness. The settlement protects these lands from being overrun by “too much access” (e.g., vehicular, dirt bike, snowmobile, tour bus … even asphalt). As the agreement recites, a balance has been struck that will “guarantee suitable public access to the Hunter Creek Valley and aid in the preservation of the Hunter Creek Valley.” All hands worked hard to avoid the specter captured so well by Joni Mitchell’s alarming refrain, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” As she wisely reminded all of us in her ’70s ballad about our environment, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone …” The honor roll of those in our community whose efforts were indispensable to this long awaited day deserves deep and thunderous public thanks. First, hats off to the Friends of Hunter Creek, founded quickly in 1988 when the McCloskeys closed and barricaded the historic North Road as it passed through the middle of their 70 acres, very close to the site of their new home. The Friends’ steering committee was led by the same dedicated conservationists and backcountry enthusiasts who worked together in the early ’70s to secure congressional approval of the federal purchase of the entire valley floor from McCulloch Oil Company, averting a planned 1,200-house subdivision. These public access and management issues continue to be a passionate focus for the indomitable Jim Ward, always a wise and witty voice of reason; for environmentalists Charlie and Heather Hopton, Connie Harvey and Dottie Fox; for former Aspen mayors Stacey Standley and John Bennett; and for longtime ACES director Tom Cardamone and cartoonist Chris Cassatt. They and other Friends volunteered thousands of hours circulating petitions, designing ads, signing affidavits, locating old-timers, driving elderly witnesses to depositions and trial, and raising money for expert witnesses – all indispensable ingredients for success. Second, three cheers for the truth-telling that was pivotal to favorable court rulings at every juncture, including the key ruling at the end of a 50-witness federal trial that the 110-year-old Hunter Creek Toll Road was still a public road. The roll call of such witnesses whose sworn testimony was offered by affidavit, deposition or at trial includes a Who’s Who of Aspen citizenry – folks who recalled the location and uses of these roads and trails in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s like Elizabeth Paepcke, Fritz and Fabi Benedict, Peggy Rowland, Stanley Natal, Heather Tharp and Phoebe Ryerson. Third, the community owes continuing thanks to those Pitkin County commissioners who, after very nearly caving in to the landowners’ attempts to privatize these public roads and trails in the mid-1980s, re-examined the importance of maintaining public access and became convinced that there was compelling proof of their legal stature, as developed by the Friends and by Jim and Merilee Auster. The quiet leadership of the late Bob Child was pivotal in the early years. The staying power of the current commissioners was invaluable in more recent years. Indispensable to the final settlement were the skillful negotiations guided the past two years by Assistant County Attorney Chris Seldin.Finally, the road to success was paved by you, the community of users of these roads and trails, as thousands of you respected private property, honored those whose lands these roads and trails crossed, and engendered trust in the peaceful co-existence of public access and the privacy and security expectations of the homeowners. The seeds for success were sown in 1997-98 when the HUNTER CREEK FOREVER bumper sticker appeared on the scene, symbolizing the first opportunity for the community to join forces, economically and emotionally, in order to purchase and preserve the Hummingbird Lode in Van Horn Park – a potential 15,000-square-foot home site looming over the valley floor – raising over $2 million in county, city and private financial support. So, are we now all Friends of Hunter Creek?The answer will be written as opportunities to work shoulder to shoulder arise in the coming months and years. One will be our continued participation in future forest management plans, in order to insure preservation of the flora and fauna which flourish in the public lands between the national forest boundary on Red Mountain and the wilderness boundary on Bald Knob.Another will be our vigorous defense of limited but permanent 24/7 public access to this fragile valley from collateral attack by the Forest Service, which has refused to join in the settlement. Yet another will be ongoing volunteer efforts through organizations like the Wilderness Workshop, ACES, and Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers to preserve wildlife habitat, eliminate noxious weeds, allow unneeded roads or trails to revegetate, and avoid the impacts of overuse.Tim McFlynn, former counsel to the Friends of Hunter Creek, is a mediator in Aspen.
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