Forest Service vows to replace Aspen facilities | PostIndependent.com

Forest Service vows to replace Aspen facilities

Scott Condon
Aspen Correspondent
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox Post Independent
ALL |

ASPEN, Colorado – The U.S. Forest Service will have a plan in place by the end of next year to replace the dilapidated office, visitors’ center and housing in Aspen, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said this week.

The agency is pouring funds into patching up inadequate facilities that aren’t part of its long-term plan, he said. It spent $29,000 last year to fix the leaky roof of the administrative office and visitors’ center in Aspen. Even without the leaks, the building at West Hallam and Seventh streets is inadequate as a workplace or as a visitors’ center in one of the highest visited forests in the country, Fitzwilliams said.

This month the agency is spending an estimated $30,000 to $40,000 to make a bunkhouse on the Aspen property habitable. The facility received an internal “red card” from the Forest Service, meaning it couldn’t be used until safety issues were addressed. The gravest flaw was ventilation with the heating and cooling system that posed a threat to residents.

The bunk house is critical for attracting and accommodating seasonal help, like trail crew workers. Space is also rented to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies for summer help. The Forest Service is racing to complete the health and safety upgrades for this summer.

Forest Service officials said the buildings have deteriorated over the years because the Forest Service budget has limited funds for capital improvements and maintenance. Demands are greater than the funds.

Partial sale of the Aspen site or a partnership with the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority is nothing new. It’s been explored but not pursued as district rangers in Aspen or forest supervisors in Glenwood Springs have transferred out of their posts.

Fitzwilliams, who became the top official last fall in the 2.3-million acre White River National Forest, vowed to address the issue before the end of 2011.

“I can’t wait forever,” he said. “I can’t get further behind. We’re just pouring money down the sewer.”

Fitzwilliams said he would prefer to upgrade facilities in Aspen, El Jebel and Carbondale by working with the housing authorities of Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties. The supervisor’s office is working with U.S. Rep. Jared Polis’ office on potential legislation that would allow the Forest Service to give long-term leases to some of its administrative sites to the housing authorities. In return, the housing authorities would develop affordable housing for the community, including some for the Forest Service. Redevelopment would include administrative offices and, in Aspen, a visitors’ center.

In addition to providing affordable housing, the arrangement “would get us out of the construction and landlord business,” Fitzwilliams said.

Polis’ office requested draft wording from the White River National Forest on enabling legislation. Polis spokeswoman Lara Cottingham said that legislation “is definitely something he is interested in working on.” There is no time table for introduction of a bill, she said.

So the Forest Service is also working on a “Plan B” to redevelop facilities in the Roaring Fork Valley using existing legislation. Congress has already granted the Forest Service the ability to sell property used for administrative purposes and keep the funds to tackle deferred maintenance and redevelopment. That legislation is known as the Forest Service Facility Realignment and Enhancement Act.

The catch is, that legislative authority expires at the end of 2011. Fitzwilliams said it will be used to solve the problems in the Roaring Fork Valley if it doesn’t appear Congress will approve a bill to grant new authority to work with housing authorities.

Some facilities in Rifle and Minturn have already been sold and the funds banked. The Forest Service is considering the sale of part of its property in Aspen and a horse pasture along Catherine Store Road about 1 mile east of Carbondale.

A portion of the old Mount Sopris Tree Farm property might also be sold, Fitzwilliams said. The Forest Service traded 120 acres to Eagle and Pitkin counties in the 1990s, but retained pastures, a storage yard for materials, a housing compound and a one-mile ribbon of riparian area along the Roaring Fork River.

“The old tree nursery is in the category of, ‘We don’t really need it but we don’t know what to do with it,'” he said.

The lower bench, which is rare undisturbed wildlife habitat along the river, wouldn’t be sold for development. A deed restriction would be placed on it, Fitzwilliams said.

It’s possible all the old nursery land could be retained, and proceeds of sales of other land could be used to build affordable housing and administrative offices there.

Fitzwilliams said his highest priorities are a new office with some sort of visitors’ center in Aspen, along with upgraded employee housing there. The Carbondale office needs to be replaced or extensively remodeled.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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