Counties concerned about Forest Service land sale |

Counties concerned about Forest Service land sale

Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

A U.S. Forest Service proposal to sell 81 acres of land in the El Jebel area, including about 52 acres of riparian area along the Roaring Fork River, raised concerns among Pitkin and Eagle county officials on Tuesday.

The counties will explore making an offer to buy the property rather than letting it go to a private bidder and potentially leading to development.

Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman said he sees a real opportunity to retain the land as open space. “I think what we don’t need, looking across the street, is more development,” he said during a joint meeting with the Eagle County board in El Jebel.

The White River National Forest considers the land “disposal property” in bureaucratic terms. The 81 acres is what remains in federal ownership at the former Mount Sopris Tree Farm. The bulk of the property was traded to the counties in the 1990s and a large portion was eventually developed into Crown Mountain Park.

Now the Forest Service wants to sell the remainder of the former tree farm under the Forest Service Facility Realignment and Enhancement Act.

“We would like to get the most benefit that we can from this parcel,” Forest Service representative Bill Kite told the commissioners. “We’d like to have the whole parcel fall out of federal ownership.”

The proceeds from the sale of the midvalley property would help fund construction of a new ranger station in Aspen as well as other facility improvements in the White River National Forest, Kite said.

Randy Parker, an engineer with the Forest Service, said the agency has the responsibility to “get the best price for the American taxpayer” from the sale of the land. Forest Service specialists will appraise the property this spring or summer and establish a value, he said.

The sale value might be tough to gauge. The land isn’t zoned by Eagle County because federal parcels are exempt. However, it’s got a zoning overlay that would affect future buyers, said Eagle County Commissioner Peter Runyon. He said Eagle County land-use regulations would likely allow a private buyer of the property to develop only one house. However, there would be no guarantee the lower bench along the river would remain in public hands.

“I would hate to see that go out of public ownership,” said Dale Will, director of Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails program.

The riparian area includes a trail popular with midvalley residents and easy access for fishermen. The lower bench was part of an old ranch before the Forest Service bought it so it was never developed. The Forest Service says the riparian area is good wildlife habitat.

The 29 acres on the upper bench includes a handful of single-family homes and a bunkhouse used by the Forest Service, a horse pasture, a storage yard and a hay field. The upper bench is accessed from Valley Road.

There is a provision in the Forest Service Facility Realignment and Enhancement Act that allows the agency to sell disposal property directly to local governments – if the local governments request the sale and it can be proven to be mutually beneficial, Parker said.

Both county commissions directed their county managers to designate key staff members to study the issue and prepare a possible letter of inquiry to buy the property. An actual offer would have to be approved by the commissioners of the counties.

“The key is going to be in the appraisal,” Runyon said.

Will questioned if it was appropriate for the Forest Service to consider the sale of the riparian area on the lower bench. Congress passed a law that allows the sale of administrative lands, he said. Clearly the riparian land at the old tree farm is most valuable as open space. Will said it is “troubling” for the counties to have to consider spending limited open space funds to acquire Forest Service lands that aren’t really administrative in nature.

Will suggested to the commissioners that they consider asking Colorado’s Congressional delegation to remove the for sale sign off the 52 acres by the river.

The Forest Service representatives said the El Jebel land had already been placed on a list of properties approved for sale.

Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards stressed that the concern from county officials shouldn’t be considered criticism of the White River National Forest staff.

“Clearly we’re not looking at the Forest Service as bad guys here,” she said.

The agency has limited funds and massive needs, like replacement of the deteriorating ranger station and visitors’ center in Aspen, Richards said. It is seeking creative ways to funds capital improvements, she said, but that creates “new concerns for the public.”

The Forest Service said it will undertake an environmental assessment of the proposed sale. That process will include collecting public opinion on a starting date yet to be determined.

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