March 8, 2013

Rio Grande Trail to be studied in larger context

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A portion of the Roaring Fork River canyon below Aspen includes the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District's wastewater treatment facility, as seen from the Rio Grande Trail. The 4-mile long "river gorge" also includes a host of other elements that will be studied this year as part of new management plan being developed by the Pitkin County Open Space program.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

A portion of the Roaring Fork River canyon below Aspen includes the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District's wastewater treatment facility, as seen from the Rio Grande Trail. The 4-mile long "river gorge" also includes a host of other elements that will be studied this year as part of new management plan being developed by the Pitkin County Open Space program.

The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Board Thursday blessed an expanded planning effort for the “river gorge” between Jaffe Park and Stein Park, which includes the last unpaved section of the Rio Grande Trail.

The back-to-the-drawing-board approach comes after county commissioners halted a project last month to build a new pedestrian and bike bridge linking the trail with the Aspen Airport Business Center. The bridge and proposed trail extension would have provided a hard surface all the way into Aspen, and was seen as an alternative to paving the last unpaved 4 miles of trail.

The effort to complete a detailed “Roaring Fork Gorge Trail and Management Plan” is expected to take until the end of the year, said Gary Tennenbaum, the stewardship and trails manager for the county open space program.

Developing a comprehensive management plan for the river gorge means that any part of the unpaved section of the Rio Grande Trail will not be paved, or otherwise extensively re-surfaced, until at least 2014.

There will be, however, about $75,000 worth of work done in the area this spring to improve some persistent drainage problems along the trail, Tennenbaum said.

Some members of the open space board and some county commissioners have said that at least the lower 2 miles of trail above Jaffe Park should be paved this summer, but Tennenbaum said that will not happen in 2013.

He said there is already a list of other trail construction projects lined up for this summer and it makes sense to finish the management plan first.

The new plan will consider the Rio Grande Trail as a “major component” of the area, Tennenbaum said, but the in-house planning effort is primarily designed to look at the trail in the larger context of the 4-mile-long river canyon.

“Beyond just the Rio Grande Trail, we’re going to come up with some really good ideas to deal with some of the issues we have there,” Tennenbaum said, such as fishing access and scenic viewpoints and connections to the south side of the gorge.

Other items to be considered and mapped include signage, rock-climbing areas, mud-slide areas, wildlife and wetland areas and “points of congregation.”

Tennenbaum said the new planning effort will require another public process to gather feedback.

That’s on top of the extensive effort by the open space staff over the past two years to gather feedback on improving the Rio Grande Trail.

That effort resulted in mixed messages about whether to pave all of the trail or not.

Members of the open space board said Thursday it was important to take the time needed to develop a good plan.

Tim McFlynn, a founding member of the open space program, said the effort reminded him of the complicated and time-consuming process that was required to develop a management plan for the popular North Star open space east of Aspen.

Board members suggested that open space staff also study the limited parking and pull-outs that provide access to the river gorge area, as well as including a list of goals at the beginning of the plan.

A lot of the data needed for the plan has already been gathered, Tennenbaum said, but items such as trail counts will be done this summer.

Tennenbaum also briefed the city of Aspen’s open space and trails board Thursday on the effort to develop the management plan. The county is hoping to work closely with the city on developing and implementing the plan.

Stephen Ellsperman, the city’s director of parks and open space, advised the city open space board that at some point it would need to make a recommendation about the county’s plan — including improvements to the Rio Grande Trail.

Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland has expressed an interest in seeing the trail paved in a fashion consistent with the balance of the 42-mile-long trail that connects Aspen to Glenwood Springs.

The new planning process will be explained to the Pitkin County commissioners at a meeting on March 19.

Editor’s note: This story was produced in collaboration with the Aspen Daily News.

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