County signs off on USFS plan for Hunter-Smuggler area

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The beautiful Hunter Creek valley in the fall of 2012. It's often considered to be Aspen's back yard, and the subject of a collaborative planning effort across a 4,681-acre area of federal land.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The beautiful Hunter Creek valley in the fall of 2012. It's often considered to be Aspen's back yard, and the subject of a collaborative planning effort across a 4,681-acre area of federal land.

Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday endorsed the Hunter Creek-Smuggler Mountain Cooperative Plan being proposed by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and the U.S. Forest Service.

The Hunter-Smuggler plan describes improvements to a 4,681-acre area on Forest Service property adjacent to a 234-acre open space parcel owned by the city and the county on the lower face of Smuggler Mountain.

The proposals include a cleaned-up trail network and better signage for bikers and hikers, grading and drainage improvements to the popular Smuggler Mountain Road, and the cutting and thinning of trees and brush to reduce fire hazard and improve wildlife habitat and forest health.

“This is really great work,” Commissioner Rachel Richards said.

The plan also gained the endorsement of the county’s Open Space and Trails Board last week.

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Staff from both Pitkin County and the city of Aspen have been working closely with the Forest Service and ACES on the master plan for the area widely considered as Aspen’s back yard.

Aspen City Council has not yet endorsed the plan, but is expected to soon after a recent public open house, according to Stephen Ellsperman, Aspen’s director of parks and open space. Few people attended the open house, which the council intended to be a final check-in with the public about the plan.

The Forest Service and ACES, a local environmental education nonprofit organization, have entered into an agreement and ACES is paying for studies of the proposals and for the projects.

The effort originally started as an initiative of For the Forest, a nonprofit forest-health organization funded by a trio of wealthy Red Mountain homeowners concerned about wildfire danger in their neighborhood, as well as about the health of the state’s forests, which have been badly weakened by insects and drought.

For the Forest and ACES merged in December 2011 and ACES then assumed a lead role in the Smuggler-Hunter planning effort.

Once the city gives its blessing, the plan will be formally submitted by ACES and reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires a 45-day public comment period.

“We’re very optimistic that this will move fairly rapidly compared to anything else because of the process that we’ve gone through,” said Chris Lane, the CEO of ACES. “We hope, before 2013 is over, we can actually begin work.”

The plan also builds on other recently completed planning efforts, including a forest travel management plan and a 10-year forest management plan for Smuggler Mountain completed in 2010 by the city and the county.

One of the biking and hiking trails in the Hunter Creek valley last fall. Part of the USFS plan is to improve the trail network by adding better signage and by eliminating redundant trails.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

One of the biking and hiking trails in the Hunter Creek valley last fall. Part of the USFS plan is to improve the trail network by adding better signage and by eliminating redundant trails.Smith/Aspen Journalism

Under a NEPA review, actions proposed on federal land are scrutinized, including activities such as logging and trail building.

In terms of logging, the Hunter-Smuggler plan calls for “patch cuts” of an acre to two-and-a-half acres over 216 acres of lodge-pole pine groves that are seen as being at risk due to a lack of diversity.

And it calls for cutting at-risk mixed-conifer stands on 80 acres of land, cutting at-risk aspen trees across 281 acres of land, and cutting or burning thick stands of gambel oak bushes on 60 acres of land, primarily as a preventive measure against wildfires.

In the aspen stands that need attention, the plan notes that “prescribed fire and pushing over whole trees with heavy equipment will be used to stimulate the root system, encourage new growth, and provide a suitable environment for them to establish and grow.”

Any proposed prescribed burns would take place in the upper reaches of the planning area, and the Forest Service acknowledges that these would have to be done in a way that does not pose a risk to recreation or private property.

“One of the goals in the area is to allow fire,” said Gary Tennenbaum, a land steward with Pitkin County, who added that the burns would only take place after work had been done to reduce fire danger closer to town.

This is an image taken from the Hunter-Smuggler plan that shows the wildfire danger in the "wildland urban interface" around Aspen. It gives new meaning to the term "red mountain," as the orange and red colors on the map indicates high hazard areas.

Source: USFS

In all, the plan calls for “up to 836 acres of potential forest health restoration and improvements … leading to a net gain in wildlife habitat values within the planning area.”

A key goal of the plan is to reduce wildfire hazard in the wildland-urban interface between downtown Aspen and the upper slopes of Smuggler Mountain and the Hunter Creek area.

“Fire management is a big one,” Tennenbaum said. “This is a major issue.”

Overall, the Forest Service intends to leave 3,845 acres “free from mechanical treatments to protect existing high value resources, and to encourage natural processes to complement vegetation treatments.”

The plan acknowledges that logging operations in the area won’t be easy, as Smuggler Mountain Road is “steep and narrow, with heavy recreational use” and Red Mountain Road “has a tight switchback and is a residential road.”

“This mostly demands the use of short-bed trucks (approximately 20-foot) for all timber removal,” the plan states. “Furthermore, the lack of roads in general for the area, slopes over 35 percent, and erosive soils limit the amount of ground-based operations … that can be used. Because of this, helicopter usage may be a component of the logging, but would be restricted to a limited time period in the fall to account for wildlife.”

Much of the flow of Hunter Creek is diverted to the Eastern Slope through the Fry-Ark Project, but the creek is still a compelling part of the valley.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Much of the flow of Hunter Creek is diverted to the Eastern Slope through the Fry-Ark Project, but the creek is still a compelling part of the valley.Smith/Aspen Journalism

The county’s Tennenbaum told the county commissioners on Tuesday some issues raised by the plan will need to be “teased out” during the NEPA process.

“Not everyone is dying for all of this to happen,” he said.

The Hunter-Smuggler planning area is still relatively pristine, despite years of intensive recreational use on top of a few decades of heavy mining and logging activity.

The planning area includes some areas that can be considered lynx habitat, and lynx, which are on the endangered species list, have been tracked in the area. And a good swath of the planning area is prime elk habitat.

The plan takes care to avoid further diminishment of wildlife habitat either through the routing, or re-routing of trails, and by avoiding mechanical work being conducted in sensitive areas.

The plan and technical supporting documents are available online at www.hunter-smugglerplan.com.

Editor’s note: This story also ran in the Aspen Daily News on Jan. 30, 2013. Aspen Journalism and the Daily News are collaborating on coverage of Pitkin County.

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