Aspen’s Hunter-Smuggler forest health plan encounters snag, environmental group says
A comprehensive plan for trail improvements and forest-health projects over the next 20 years in Hunter Creek Valley and Smuggler Mountain was collaborative in name only and contains numerous flaws, according to the conservation group Wilderness Workshop.
The Carbondale-based organization has filed a 30-page formal objection over the U.S. Forest Service’s Draft Decision Notice for the Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan. The objection also applies to an Environmental Assessment associated with the decision notice.
The objection will add another level of review to the Forest Service process and possibly delay the project. The multiple points made by Wilderness Workshop will have to be addressed before the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District can finalize a plan.
The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District is the lead agency in the plan but Pitkin County, the city of Aspen and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies helped shape it. The city and county own part of the 4,681 acres where the work outlined in the plan will occur. Smuggler Mountain and Hunter Creek Valley are among the most popular areas for Aspen residents and visitors to mountain bike, hike, ski and tap into the special qualities of nature. It’s been known for years as Aspen’s backyard.
The Forest Service touted the Hunter-Smuggler Plan as a collaborative process that occurred over several years.
“This was a challenging, yet thoughtful process, so it was an easy decision for me to make,” wrote Aspen-Sopris District interim ranger David Francomb in the draft decision notice. “All parties involved in the planning process will benefit from this project. Most important, the public will experience noticeable benefit from implementation of this project.”
But Wilderness Workshop claimed the planning process was flawed.
“While public input was sought numerous times during the development of the (plan), it was not a collaborative process,” the organization said in its objection. “As a result, the process of developing the (plan), which culminated in the Environmental Assessment, failed to engender the trust necessary to give the Forest Service the extraordinary discretion necessary to implement the decision notice.”
One of Wilderness Workshop’s biggest concerns is over the controversial Balcony Trail on the south side of Smuggler Mountain. Mountain bikers built the 4.2-mile trail, with an internal loop, without Forest Service approval, according to the agency. The Forest Service acknowledges there are “concerns” about the drainage and potential erosion of the trail as well as fragmentation of wildlife habitat. Nevertheless, the agency determined that demand warrants a trail. The plan calls for a trail to be “explored.”
Wilderness Workshop said that logic doesn’t make sense. The organization said the Forest Service has failed to take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts of the trail.
“The Environmental Assessment provides a simple list of concerns and leaves it at that,” Wilderness Workshop’s objection said. “The lack of ‘high quality’ information and ‘scientific analysis’ to inform the public is especially important given the history and level of controversy surrounding this trail.”
Wilderness Workshop wants the agency to prohibit use of the existing trail and preserve the area as habitat for black bear and elk. The organization is lobbying for the south side of Smuggler Mountain to be classified as “wilderness,” where motorized and mechanized uses would be prohibited. Pitkin County and Aspen has endorsed the wilderness designation.
“It is a mystery why the Forest Service undertook to analyze the Balcony Trail as an existing condition despite the fact that it has never been analyzed or approved, and despite the fact that the area is, in fact, closed,” Wilderness Workshop’s objection said. “Nonetheless, the EA makes it clear that adverse impacts are occurring as a result of use of the trail. To ensure compliance with existing plans and agency regulations and to ensure that resource damage does not continue, it seems important to remind the agency that the Forest Service has authority to immediately close the area until adverse impacts have been eliminated and take measures to prevent future recurrence.”
But Francomb’s decision notice said he wanted to keep the door open for a possible trail and give the stakeholders an opportunity to come to agreement on an alignment.
“Competing interests came to the table to discuss this controversial trail, and to eliminate a proposed component of the Hunter-Smuggler Plan due to a point of controversy on a proposed trail would in some regard be giving up on a process that was overwhelmingly successful,” Francomb wrote.
Wilderness Workshop’s objection also casts doubt on a central premise of the Hunter-Smuggler Plan — that trees must be cleared to deal with the effects of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. The Forest Service’s environmental study failed to consider new evidence that the mountain pine beetle epidemic “is over and no longer poses a threat” anywhere in the state except the Front Range, the objection said.
“The failure to include it suggests that the agency is selectively presenting information that supports a pre-determined conclusion and is withholding information contrary to that conclusion,” Wilderness Workshop said.
The Forest Service approved thinning of lodgepole-pine stands to promote diversity of species and age class of trees in the Hunter-Smuggler planning area.
Wilderness Workshop’s multi-faceted objection, signed by executive director Sloan Shoemaker, was submitted to White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. The Forest Service staff is preparing responses to Wilderness Workshop’s objection.
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