Forest Service cracks down on people violating Basalt Mountain closure order
A surge in the number of people ignoring the closure order on fire-scarred Basalt Mountain has spurred the U.S. Forest Service to close and lock gates on entrance roads and hire security guards to patrol the area.
The most unusual violation was by a hang glider who landed in a tree within the burn area of the Lake Christine Fire on Friday and was apprehended by the fire protection officers, according to Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer. They contacted a law enforcement officer who issued a citation for violating a closure order. The scofflaw’s hang glider also was confiscated, Schroyer said.
Another person was cited last week when he drove his pickup into the closed area.
“His vehicle got stuck. It was obvious he was under the influence of something,” Schroyer said.
Violation of a forest closure order is punishable as a Class B misdemeanor, with a fine of not more than $5,000 or imprisonment for not more than six months, or both. Neither case has been resolved yet.
The Lake Christine Fire burned a large portion of national forest on Basalt Mountain while it raged in July and smoldered into August. There are still hot spots within the fire perimeter and on the eastern edge, in steep, inaccessible terrain. A small firefighting force remains on the mountain and regularly uses Forest Road 524, commonly known as Basalt Mountain Road, and Forest Road 509, which accesses cabins on private land in the Upper Cattle Creek drainage.
The prime reason for the forest closure is for firefighter and public safety. Schroyer said fire engines and off-highway vehicles used by firefighters are constantly traveling the roads. When an Aspen Times reporter was taken on a tour of the area earlier in August, firefighters kept in touch about traveling on the road by radio. The Forest Service doesn’t want the general public driving the same routes and risking a collision.
The secondary concern is over the high number of dead, burned trees that are still standing and in danger of falling. They’re called snags. The root systems of some live trees were also weakened and they pose a threat as well, according to the Forest Service.
The chance of snags falling soars during windy days like the Roaring Fork Valley has experienced lately, Schroyer said. (A red flag warning has been issue for Thursday with gusts predicted to hit 30 mph.)
The agency doesn’t want the public venturing onto Basalt Mountain’s roads and trails until after Mother Nature and trail crews clear out the snags.
The Forest Service says the closure will be reviewed next spring to see if additional terrain can be opened. The only exception may be the owners of cabins on private land in Upper Cattle Creek drainage. They might be allowed to access their land, but the forest abutting the cabins will be off limits, Schroyer said.
The number of closure violations soared on Sunday when 20 vehicles were stopped in and around the vicinity of the Basalt Mountain Road parking lot, according to Schroyer. Signs were posted lower on the road, at the forest boundary, that the forest was closed. The violators were cooperative and turned around when confronted by the guards, she said.
One reason for the surge might be the approach of hunting season. Some people might have wanted to see if they could scout the area or assess the prospects for big-game season, Schroyer said. Other people might just be curious about the fire damage to the forest.
As part of the firefighting effort, the White River National Forest had to put out a call for forest protection officers.
“We don’t have the resources to staff people out there,” Schroyer said.
Two officers reported from other forests. Once they “time out” — serve a certain number of days and must take a mandatory break — the White River will likely request additional guards, according to Schroyer.
Meanwhile, winter gates on the roads have been closed and locked to reduce unwelcome traffic. At some point, the area won’t be patrolled, Schroyer acknowledged.
“We won’t be able to staff the closure for the winter,” she said.
The Forest Service will rely on people honoring the closure order — and avoiding danger.
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Basalt mayoral candidates Bill Kane and Rob Leavitt said at a Feb. 10 forum they endorsed the town government’s $1.34 million expenditure to expand a riverfront park. Candidate and councilman Bill Infante said not so fast and provided an alternative view.