There aren’t any designated trails through the tall grasses on the edge of the wetlands north of Snowmass Town Park. Not any boardwalks or bridges or docks, either.
There’s not much infrastructure for human recreation there at all.
There could be, though, according to plans for a facelift and new recreational amenities at the 22-acre Town Park in Snowmass Village.
Proposals for the multiphase project have included ideas for a recreational beach, a floating dock for gatherings, steppingstones, walking planks, a boardwalk and a bridge through the wetlands to connect the Seven Star Trail to Sky Mountain Park, plus a beach on one edge of the pond that is located at the south end of the wetlands near the rodeo grounds.
Those elements were part of a Town Park Master Plan that the Snowmass Village Town Council started reviewing in 2020 and approved in 2021, greenlighting a multiphase effort to improve the curb appeal of the entryway to Snowmass Village and add recreational amenities at the site.
But the development in the wetlands won’t move forward until the town does more digging into the environmental impacts due to a condition in an ordinance that the council unanimously approved Aug. 1. Passing the ordinance cleared the way for Phase 1 of the work in Town Park, which includes a reorientation of the rodeo grounds to accommodate a reconfigured parking layout and, in the future, the expansion of an existing field into a multipurpose “flex lawn” that could accommodate different sports and activities. To accommodate the new layout, Phase 1 also involves some dredging and filling-in on one edge of the pond north of the rodeo grounds; it will permanently impact a bit less than one-tenth of an acre of the wetland complex.
The condition in the ordinance requires “additional environmental review or assessment” before the town considers or authorizes “any further development in the wetlands” beyond some pond work to accommodate other Phase 1 components in the layout.
The ordinance as approved also did not include mention of some parklike features that were previously part of the legislation. That modification came after birders, naturalists and other community members raised concerns about how human recreation might disturb the wildlife.
When the town council initially reviewed the ordinance that would grant authorization to initial Town Park work on July 18, it had references to the wetlands recreational features baked into the language.
Concerns arose at that July meeting from community members worried about how the proposed work in the wetlands might impact the wildlife that utilize the area — which is otherwise currently visited primarily by birders, naturalists and parks workers. (Bikers and hikers use the Seven Star trail to the west or the Brush Creek trail to the east, both of which go around the riparian area, not through it.)
Bryan Gieszl, an avid birder in Snowmass Village, told the council at the July meeting that he worried that species “sensitive to human disturbance” might leave and not return if the town proceeds with work in the wetlands. He was concerned about both the recreational impacts of the proposed amenities in the wetlands and the impacts of some cattail removal in the pond that is part of the wetland complex.
He wrote in a follow-up letter to the council that he hoped his comments had “made a difference, and that the alterations to the pond and the development in the wetland will be abandoned or minimized.”
His comments and those of other community members at the July meeting raised red flags for council members who said that that information and input were new to them at the time.
Only three of the five members gave it the OK at the first reading. At the time, council members Bob Sirkus and Tom Fridstein said they wanted more information and more consensus before they would vote to move the ordinance forward. Councilwoman Alyssa Shenk was on the fence then — she wanted more information, too — before she decided to vote with Councilman Tom Goode and Mayor Bill Madsen in favor of moving the ordinance to a second reading.
“I’m not debating the amount of work and the amount of effort that we put in, but I feel like we didn’t ask the right people the right questions,” Sirkus said at the meeting.
“I think (Gieszl’s) comments are right on and from my perspective, the wetlands needs to be … redesigned with those comments in mind, and maybe with comments from other people in that area of expertise,” Sirkus said.
He also made note of additional input on the rodeo operations, which had been the subject of much Town Park discussion in the previous months.
Shenk shared a similar perspective at that July meeting.
“I think that is really important information that we need to have another look at, a greater discussion about,” Shenk said then.
“I believed, and I still believe, that we’re doing it in the best interest of the community,” she said at the meeting. “But it’s like, when you hear all this other information, which I don’t know enough about, because I’m not a birder, it disturbs me, and I feel like we need to really have a better idea of what that exactly means.”
The condition requiring further environmental review was incorporated into the version of the ordinance that council reviewed again, and ultimately approved, on Aug. 1.
Sirkus proposed the move to scrap the references at the Aug. 1 meeting, suggesting the town “postpone that (review) to some time in the future when we can have additional data and additional discussion.”
“The next council, or the council after that, will be able to make their own decision about that, yet not hold up the first phase (of Town Park),” he said.
Roaring Fork Audubon letter
Gieszl had not been the only community member to raise concerns about wildlife impacts, nor the first. Roaring Fork Audubon board chair Mary Harris wrote a letter on the matter addressed to the Town Council in February and emailed a copy to Aspen Journalism upon request on September 2.
Roaring Fork Audubon member and Snowmass Village resident Chris Daniels had sent a PDF of the letter to Town Manager Clint Kinney and Parks and Recreation Director Andy Worline on Feb. 13, according to an email chain Daniels forwarded to Aspen Journalism. (Daniels had also sent a Google Drive link to the letter on Feb. 9.)
The letter indicates that the town’s plans for “trails, boardwalks and other amenities” caught the attention of the Roaring Fork Audubon organization.
“This is to express our concern that these facilities be installed and managed in a way that is sensitive to the value of this area to local wildlife and natural systems,” the letter reads. “As you are aware, wetlands are an extremely valuable, fragile and relatively rare component of our local environment. … It is vital that construction and increased public access to any wetland area take into consideration the needs of wetland-dependent plants and animals.”
The letter includes recommendations to mitigate wildlife impacts in the wetlands by prohibiting pets, limiting public access “during the most sensitive times of the year for wildlife,” limiting construction in the wetlands to “that part of the year when it can be best tolerated by wildlife” and monitoring water quality.
In the email chain Daniels forwarded to Aspen Journalism, Worline confirmed in a Feb. 24 email that the town received the letter and had added it to the special review application for Town Park, which would ensure the letter was part of the official record moving forward. The chain also included correspondence among Daniels, Worline and Kinney that continued after the letter was sent.
“The Snowmass wetlands are a unique habitat in not just Snowmass, but in the Roaring Fork Valley as a whole,” Daniels wrote in an email Feb. 28. “The increased traffic that the improved trails will invite, along with the presence of pets (even if there is a leash requirement), will likely negatively impact the birds that today call the wetlands home.”
The letter did not appear in the town’s public records portal, though, which contains the special review application for Town Park that was submitted in January and revised in March as well as related appendix documents, comments from other agencies and town council packets.
Kinney noted in an email that the letter arrived during a time of transition between town clerks and that a “technical glitch” or “human glitch” may have been the reason the letter wasn’t stored or filed as it usually would be in the town systems.
By summer, though, it was on the radar for other people who provided input on Town Park. Longtime local naturalist Janis Lindsey Huggins mentioned the Audubon letter in her own letter addressed to the Town Council and emailed to Shenk on July 27.
Huggins wrote that she has walked the wetlands area nearly every day since 1995 and has guided hikes with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies for nearly three decades.
She wrote that “the part of the plans that are to ‘improve’ the wetland section are way off base” and that “this area needs to be left alone for the existing species to thrive.”
“I am in agreement to upgrade anything the community needs around the existing park and the rodeo grounds as long as our town does not infringe on the rights of those species that depend on those wetlands that have already been disturbed too much,” Huggins wrote. “If you do construction in that precious place, … you will forever change the natural character of a special place and the home of all those species that have so few places left to survive.”
Although the plans for more recreational features raised flags for some, the proposal did pass muster by other measures.
The parcel where most of the features would pop up is zoned for recreation, and the special-review application for Town Park indicates that amenities such as a gathering deck, steppingstones and walking planks are permitted within recreational zoning.
The bridge and trail connection between the Seven Star trail and Sky Mountain Park — both popular mountain-biking destinations — would cross over into a parcel zoned for multifamily housing. The special-review application indicates that the bridge site “is more appropriately aligned” with the adjacent recreation parcel and that “all proposed elements are allowed” in the multifamily zone.
Worline said Town Park planners envisioned the wetlands as a “one stop recreational opportunity” for both “active” and “passive” users of the space. The wetlands weren’t initially part of the plans for the Town Park revamp, but the idea for more amenities there emerged during the planning process.
“There’s a lot of space down there and … not much access to it, which is good and bad,” he said in an interview. “And obviously, we’re going to be very sensitive about that: We want to be able to provide access into the wetlands without the impact.”
The boardwalk proposal would allow people to interact with the wetlands without disturbing it as much as “social trails” that can form when people walk through an area without a designated path.
Town Park planners have noted the educational value that might come from more access to the wetlands, drawing comparisons to Hallam Lake, the downtown Aspen nature preserve that is home to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
Planners suggested that the features could create a more accessible wetlands area that would encourage people to learn more about their natural environment, perhaps through naturalist-led walking tours.
Although planners have mentioned water rights in some town meetings, “there’s no correlation” between any potential water rights in the pond and any proposed recreational features in the wetlands, Kinney said in a phone call.
Benefit versus impact
The proposal also didn’t raise any red flags in a report commissioned by the town on the Town Park plans from Jonathan Lowsky, who runs Colorado Wildlife Science, a wildlife and ecological consulting firm in Basalt.
Lowsky’s report did not identify any significant, long-term, negative effects to wildlife from the project proposal. He wrote that the project “does not propose significant habitat disruptions and, in some areas, will improve habitat conditions.”
He wrote that some species might leave during construction but would likely return within a season or two, and that the nearby Coffey Place housing development was more likely to impact elk and mule deer movement than any of the wetland amenities.
He said at the Aug. 1 council meeting that Phase 1 work on the edge of the pond “is not going to cause any local population declines or greater extirpation of rare species that are at threat at all,” Lowsky said.
Much of the vegetation in the area is reed canary grass and cattails. The pond is the beginning of a “riparian wetland complex” that follows Brush Creek from Town Park to Cozy Point about 3 miles downhill, and there is similar “alternate habitat” for species within the complex, he said.
Lowsky said there are some species that are “sensitive to human disturbance” — such as yellow warblers and warbling vireos — that “are likely to either decline in numbers or perhaps totally abandon that disturbance area for a breeding season or two” during construction.
“But then once the construction activity has passed, research has shown that they do return after one, two or three years,” he said at the meeting. Limiting construction dates could mitigate the effects, he said.
As for the effects of more human access to the wetlands, Lowsky told the council at the meeting that he thinks “the benefits outweigh the impacts.”
Lowsky also drew comparisons to Hallam Lake, noting the abundance of wildlife that still populates that space, even with frequent and numerous human visitors. He said some areas of the wetlands will still be set off from human access at the wetlands, much as parts of Hallam Lake are a distance away from the trails that visitors can explore.
Lowsky acknowledged that education and preservation are sometimes part of a compromise.
“One of the things that is always debated by wildlife biologists is the trade-off between ecological interpretation or education and disturbing animals,” Lowsky said.
At the wetlands site, though, where “you’ve got trails on both sides of these wetlands, you’ve got the rodeo grounds, you’ve got the housing projects, you have Brush Creek Road.” Lowsky said he saw the wetlands as the “perfect place” for educational signage that would teach people about ecology and restoration.
“That benefit is more important than those minor impacts,” he said.
The Phase 1 work involves permanent impacts to a little less than one-tenth of an acre of wetlands on the south end of the human-made pond located near the rodeo grounds. The Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit for that on Aug. 9.
There, crews will dredge the cattails that have silted in and discharge about 580 cubic yards of fill material at the edge of the pond, according to town documents and the Army Corps permit.
The filling-in will help create a level surface to fit the reoriented rodeo grounds and accommodate a pathway around the rodeo, according to Worline.
The Army Corps reviewed the project for impacts to threatened and endangered species and determined that “based on the information provided, … this project will have no effect on federally listed species or their critical habitat,” according to the permit.
That proposed pond work required a supermajority approval from the Town Council because it will take place within 25 feet of the wetlands.
The town’s municipal code states that development shouldn’t happen within a 25-foot setback of the Brush Creek Impact Area, which includes the wetlands north of Town Park.
There are exceptions for water-dependent and necessary structures, for stream restoration, and for “other types of development,” so long as that development is approved by four out of five members of the Town Council in an ordinance that explains why the development can’t avoid the setback area.
The wetlands recreational features would also fall into the “other types of development” category within the 25-foot wetlands setback.
With all references to the recreational amenities removed and a condition requiring further environmental assessment, though, the council’s unanimous approval of the ordinance Aug. 1 only provides the requisite approvals for the pond work and for the other Phase 1 developments on land. Another supermajority vote would be required of a future council that might consider adding the amenities to the wetlands area.
The $4.5 million Phase 1 was initially on track to kick off this past August, but there were still some odds and ends that town officials wanted to tie up before digging in, according to Worline. The new projected start date is next August.
A construction-management plan indicates that Phase 1 work — now a year away — will take place from late August to mid-November 2023, with a winter pause for the ski season. It will then resume from mid-April 2024 to the end of that June, with a summer pause for the 2024 rodeo season.
Kaya Willams, writing for Aspen Journalism’s Connie Harvey Environment Desk on a freelance assignment, formerly covered Snowmass Village for The Aspen Times and currently covers arts and culture for Aspen Public Radio.
This story ran in The Aspen Times.