Forest Service considers sale of river wetlands |

Forest Service considers sale of river wetlands

The U.S. Forest Service is considering the sale of about 60 acres of wetlands along the Roaring Fork River in the midvalley to help raise the funds needed to redevelop such facilities as its office and visitors’ center in Aspen.

The property being eyed for sale provides wildlife habitat, fishermen access to the river and an informal trail network for nearby residents.

The land is on a bench below Crown Mountain Park in the El Jebel area. It is one of 11 properties throughout the White River National Forest that the agency is considering selling, officials said. No decision has been made on the sale and the Forest Service will perform a review under the National Environmental Policy Act. If it is sold, it would remain protected, Forest Service officials said.

The Forest Service owns between 58 and 60 acres that are “essentially riparian area down along the river,” said Kevin Warner, a conveyance program specialist with the White River National Forest supervisor’s office. “It’s a pretty amazing piece of property.”

The Forest Service also owns roughly 30 acres on an upper bench along Valley Road. The upper bench consists of two pastures, a storage yard, two single-family homes, a pad for a modular home and a bunkhouse for employees.

The 90 acres is what the Forest Service retained of the old Mount Sopris Tree Farm. The federal agency swapped most of the old tree farm site to Eagle and Pitkin counties in the 1990s. Some of that land became Crown Mountain Park.

The land the Forest Service is now looking at for a possible sale is to the west of Crown Mountain Park and between the park and the river.

The riparian area is thick with cottonwood trees and most of it is swampy for much of the year. The land has never been developed although it has old ranch fences, irrigation ditches and headgates.

Warner said the environmental review for the sale of the property will likely begin in earnest this spring or summer. White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the agency will likely hold a public meeting to discuss the proposal as well as take written public comments.

Warner said the Forest Service could decide to retain ownership of the riparian area or place a conservation easement on it prior to a sale. Fitzwilliams said another option would be to sell the property with a deed restriction prohibiting development of the riparian land. The riparian area and upper bench could be sold as one parcel.

Both Warner and Fitzwilliams said development of the lower property is not a threat.

“Clearly we would not want to dispose of that for development,” Fitzwilliams said. In addition, federal regulations prohibit the agency to sell wetlands for development, Warner said.

While the land could be sold in a way that prevents development, there is no guarantee it would remain accessible to the public. Congress has granted the Forest Service authority to sell unused or under-utilized land through the Forest Service Facility Realignment and Enhancement Act. Some midvalley residents would likely argue it is in the public interest for the Forest Service to retain the property.

Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service is looking into the sale of certain lands in the forest because it has limited options to raise the funds for redevelopment of properties like the 70-year-old Aspen Ranger Station. The agency wants to replace the existing buildings, which serve as offices, a visitor center, a warehouse, bunkhouse and two single-family home residences. The Forest Service Facility Realignment and Enhancement Act allows a forest to retain the funds it raises through sale of lands for use within the forest.

The Forest Service will outline its plans for redevelopment of the Aspen Ranger Station at a public meeting from 5-7 p.m. today in the Stranahan Room of the Koch Building at the Aspen Institute.

The Forest Service has hired a consultant to perform a market analysis to determine the best option for the possible sale of the old Mount Sopris Tree Farm property. In theory, the upper 30 acres could be developed with residences if the next owner acquired approvals from Eagle County. The federally-owned land doesn’t currently have county zoning.

If the Forest Service decides to sell the old tree farm property, it could do so through a direct sale to another governmental entity or through a competitive bid process, Warner said.

The remaining tree farm property is one of 11 parcels in the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys that the White River National Forest is studying for possible sale. The only other one in the Roaring Fork Valley is the 11-acre Sopris Pasture, also known as the Rose Lane property, off of Catherine Store Road about 1 mile east of Carbondale.

If the forest raises enough money through sales, its highest priority is the redevelopment of the Aspen Ranger Station, Warner said. Redevelopment of the Eagle-Holy Cross facility is the next top priority, followed by a work center in Dillon and redevelopment of the Sopris Ranger Station on Main Street in Carbondale.

The Forest Service will notify the public when comments will be accepted on the possible sale of the remaining tree farm property and Sopris Pasture.

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