5 major projects in White River Forest will affect visitors in 2017
Whether you bike at Snowmass, backpack the Four Pass Loop, walk your dog in the midvalley’s Crown Mountain Park or spend time in the Upper Fryingpan Valley, chances are a U.S. Forest Service project in 2017 will affect your experience.
The agency has at least five major projects underway in just the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District that could impact how average folks interact with the White River National Forest.
Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said his staff is scrambling to try to keep up with all of the projects on the 2.3 million-acre forest.
“The last year to year and a half has been crazy,” he said. “It’s intense, the number of projects.”
In the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District, for example, the forest staff was undertaking seven Environmental Impact Statements at one point recently. An EIS is the most intensive, detailed study utilized under the National Environmental Policy Act. Many of the studies were for expanded summer recreation facilities at ski areas or winter upgrades of chairlifts.
In the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, most of the major projects currently underway will have a direct or indirect effect on summer recreation. Following is a summary of the projects and how they will affect the Average Joe forest visitor.
Assessing recreation facilities
The White River National Forest is undertaking an inventory and prioritization of its campgrounds, picnic areas, trailheads, day-use areas and boat ramps. The Recreation Facilities Master Plan is designed to determine what facilities the forest can afford to maintain — and what will have to be cut back or decommissioned.
It’s an effort by the agency to change and adapt to its shrinking budget. More and more funds have gone to the Forest Service’s firefighting efforts in recent years. That means fewer funds for maintenance of recreation facilities.
Fitzwilliams warned at a public presentation last year that some recommendations won’t be popular with the public. Elk Wallow Campground in the Upper Fryingpan Valley, for example, will likely be recommended for closure. The small, somewhat obscure campground needs a new toilet, but the agency is having trouble justifying the expense of providing a new toilet, up to current code requirements, given the revenues Elk Wallow produces.
In a presentation to the Pitkin County commissioners in May, Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer said the agency would also take a hard look at the Avalanche Campground in the Crystal River Valley and the Dinkle Lake day-use area.
The Recreation Facilities Master Plan and associated recommendations will be released later this year. The public will be given an opportunity to comment, according to forest officials.
Limiting overnight uses
In response to a surge in visits in recent years to high-profile destinations in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, the forest staff is working on a management plan to limit overnight use.
The goal is to limit the numbers of groups based on the carrying capacity of various areas of the wilderness. The visitor use management plan is mostly likely to be applied first in Conundrum Valley, near the popular hot springs, according to forest officials.
The limits are needed because of damage to the ecosystem and loss of the wilderness feel, the agency said.
An Environmental Assessment is underway. An initial round of public comment was gathered. The agency will release a draft EA later this year, estimated to be in June, and collect more public input. Implementation wouldn’t be until 2018.
More information can be found at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=49388.
Alpine coaster, bike trails at Snowmass
Aspen Skiing Co. is proposing to make a bigger leap into summer recreation with enhanced facilities at Snowmass Ski Area. Its proposal includes 16 miles of additional mountain biking and hiking trails, an alpine coaster, a canopy tour, a zip line, a rope challenge course and a climbing wall.
All the proposed facilities would be added to the Elk Camp section of Snowmass.
Alpine coasters have captured the attention of some environmentalists elsewhere in national forests because they resemble an amusement park ride. A gravity-driven alpine coaster will use bobsled-like cars on tubular rail tracks, according to the plan. Riders will get towed uphill. Critics contend coasters aren’t appropriate for national forest lands.
The Forest Service released a draft Environmental Impact Statement in December. It is accepting comments through Jan. 11.
More information can be found at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=49057.
Timber project in Upper Fryingpan
The U.S. Forest has proposed a timber sale and additional vegetation management on 1,964 acres in the Upper Fryingpan Valley in Pitkin and Eagle counties.
The agency says the project is necessary for production of forest products, other vegetation management and reduction of natural fuels. Its produced public comments both in support and opposition. Supporters contend projects such as this are needed to improve age diversity of the trees. Critics contend it’s a clear-cut designed to meet timber production quotas.
Most of the timber would be hauled out of the area by logging trucks using 20 miles of the Eagle-Thomasville Road and exiting in the town of Eagle. However, timber sales on 233 acres around Diemer and Seller lakes would require the trucks to use Frying Pan Road and travel through Basalt.
Basalt and Pitkin County governments are concerned about the potential for adding log truck traffic to Frying Pan Road, which already accommodates high use from Ruedi Reservoir visitors, anglers, campers and bicyclists.
The Forest Service is performing an Environmental Analysis. A draft is tapped for release this summer. That will trigger an additional comment period.
Details on the project can be found at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=50171.
El Jebel property sale
The White River is proposing the sale of two parcels of land adjacent in El Jebel to Crown Mountain Park. Fitzwilliams said the agency cannot adequately manage the administrative sites, which are isolated in the valley floor and separate from any other national forest lands. The revenues will be used on projects elsewhere in the forest.
A 40-acre parcel proposed for sale provides more than 1 mile of Roaring Fork River frontage. It’s popular with anglers and hikers. The property is also ecologically valuable with wetlands and a rare orchid.
Fitzwilliams has vowed that an easement preventing development and preserving public access must be part of any sale.
The second parcel is 30 acres on a bench above the river’s riparian area. It includes three single-family homes rented by the Forest Service, horse pastures and a “boneyard” for Forest Service materials.
The agency is performing an Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed sale. Fitzwilliams said he has engaged Eagle County officials on talks about purchasing the property.
A decision isn’t expected until March 2018. More information can be found at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=50663.
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