The beautiful, and popular, Hunter Creek valley above Aspen.
The beautiful, and popular, Hunter Creek valley above Aspen. Credit: Paul Andersen / Aspen Journalism

The nonprofit Wilderness Workshop has been working to shape a decision expected in mid-December by White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams on the Hunter Creek-Smuggler Mountain Cooperative Plan.

Through letters and meetings Wilderness Workshop has raised concerns about the plan, which if approved will bring 20 years of forest and trails management to 4,681 acres of Smuggler Mountain and the Hunter Creek valley, what many consider Aspen’s backyard.

The advocacy group is urging Fitzwilliams to close the illegal mountain bike trail called the Balcony Trail, revise Forest Service logging plans, reduce the impacts of helicopter use, and re-think road and trail construction.

In its most recent objections, filed in October, Wilderness Workshop also criticized a collaborative process that has been touted as a model by its members – the US Forest Service, the City of Aspen, Pitkin County and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES).

Today, though, leaders from those entities say that Wilderness Workshop’s objections have strengthened the still evolving plan.

“I was disappointed with some of the harsh language in the objection,” said Fitzwilliams, who leads the sprawling White River National Forest. “In some ways Wilderness Workshop is stuck in the old model of advocacy. But we’re discovering what collaboration means. We’re all learning, and it works here because we all care, we’re all passionate about our wild lands and, in the long run, we’ll end up with a better decision.”

The "Plan Direction" map from the Hunter-Smuggler plan.
The \

Two letters and a meeting

Wilderness Workshop challenged the plan’s integrity under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

“The decreasing specificity seen in recent planning documents,” wrote Wilderness Workshop, “undermines the Forest Service’s claims that the project is the result of stakeholder consensus and collaboration.

“This change of course gives little confidence that future design, analysis and implementation outside of the NEPA process will respect past work much less incorporate future suggestions made by stakeholders like Wilderness Workshop,” the group said.

“We work from an advocacy position,” Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker said. “We don’t take our positions lightly, so we want careful analysis and research.”

After filing its objections in October, Wilderness Workshop’s staff met in November with representatives from the city, the county and ACES.

“We had a classic exercise in ‘communications 101,’” said Chris Lane, CEO of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. “We hadn’t communicated as well as we could have, and we learned that by sharing Wilderness Workshop’s concerns. We very quickly worked hard to mend those communication gaps and came up with an even higher level of agreement.”

That agreement – in the form of a letter to Forest Supervisor Fitzwilliams – was signed by Shoemaker and Lane, as well as by Steven Ellsperman, the director of the city of Aspen’s parks and open space program, and Gary Tennenbaum, the assistant director of Pitkin County’s open space and trail program.

The letter suggested changes to the plan and to the Environmental Assessment that evaluates it.

“We encourage the Forest Service to adopt these changes both as a way to improve the overall project and as a way to satisfy Wilderness Workshop’s most significant objections,” the letter stated.

“Once everyone got through the human nature of an emotional response,” said Lane, “we went item by item and came to common ground very easily. When we knew exactly how Wilderness Workshop felt, it wasn’t that hard to get through it. And that was a wakeup call about collaboration. Communication is the key to the success of everything.”

“Normally, these planning processes, especially on the federal level, try to engage folks in an administrative way but rarely do,” said Ellsperman, head of the city’s parks and open space program. “Wilderness Workshop used its skills at asking hard questions.”

Ellsperman, said “it became clear that we all had the best interest of the landscape in mind. This was a time for reflection on the plan, and out of this reflection the plan became stronger.”

“We had a good meeting with the Forest Super about our objections,” Shoemaker of Wilderness Workshop said, “and I’m optimistic that most if not all of our concerns will be met and the project will be much improved to the point where we’ll shift from objector to supporter.”

That depends, however, on what Fitzwilliams approves as the federal decision-maker.

An aerial view showing urban Aspen, the dark forested slopes of Smuggler Mountain and the lush Hunter Creek valley.
An aerial view showing urban Aspen, the dark forested slopes of Smuggler Mountain and the lush Hunter Creek valley. Credit: Courtesy photo / USFS

Areas of Concern

One area of the plan that could draw a post-decision appeal by Wilderness Workshop is the Balcony Trail, a “bandit trail” built illegally in a roadless area on the south end of Smuggler Mountain, which has wilderness qualities and sensitive wildlife issues. Because of its hard line on the Balcony Trail, Wilderness Workshop knows is not loved by some mountain bikers.

Wilderness Workshop’s chief concern is that the Balcony Trail is being considered in the plan as an existing baseline condition.

“The continued existence and persistent use of this illegal trail,” wrote Wilderness Workshop, “exemplify the Forest Service’s inability to enforce existing closures or to protect important natural resources from adverse impacts. The logical solution to this problem is obliteration of the trail. Anything short of that condones illegal use and constitutes a failure to protect important public resources.”

The Balcony Trail made news in January 2011 when The Aspen Times reported that “the trail was brought to the attention of the Forest Service by Wilderness Workshop after the conservation group found it while performing field work on the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign. Wilderness Workshop urged the agency to close the illegally constructed trail because of potential effects on wildlife and environmental damage such as erosion.”

The Hunter-Smuggler comprehensive plan refers to the Balcony Trail as a “social trail” developed by mountain bikers outside of the Forest Service review process.

“Used mostly by residents of Aspen, the trail is contentious because of the manner in which it was built, without approval,” the plan states. “However, it is fulfilling a desire, as it is the only mountain biking trail on this portion of the Forest, on the south side of Smuggler Mountain.”

This is where Wilderness Workshop objects most strenuously, saying that the illegal Balcony Trail should not be granted consideration as an existing use because it was put in without approvals and necessary studies.

Wilderness Workshop’s concerns were addressed by in the recent letter sent by the city, county, ACES and Wilderness Workshop to the Forest Supervisor:

“Prior to and following any new trail approval on the south side of Smuggler Mountain, the Forest Service shall evaluate the impacts of that trail on wildlife populations and habitat and in consultation with Colorado Parks and Wildlife will consider modifications of trail location and management up to and including closure if impacts are shown to be significant,” the letter states.

The plan for the Hunter-Smuggler area includes more signage on the trails.
The plan for the Hunter-Smuggler area includes more signage on the trails. Credit: Paul Andersen / Aspen Journalism

Beetlemania over?

Wilderness Workshop also urged that the proposed Hummingbird Traverse and Hunter Ditch Loop trails, both part of the plan, be mapped on specific corridors and studied closely for impacts.

The wilderness nonprofit also challenged proposed “patch cuts” of lodgepole pine, asserting that “the epidemic is considered to have run its course and the conditions that supported it (vast homogenous stands of LPP) no longer exist.

“The most severe and unprecedented [beetle] epidemic known to man just swept through the Rocky Mountains, killing lodge pole pine trees across tens of millions of acres from Colorado to the Yukon,” wrote Wilderness Workshop.

“That the vast majority of pines in the Hunter-Smuggler project area survived suggests that the diversity needed to remain resilient to epidemic levels of insect outbreaks is already present,” the group wrote. “It’s difficult to imagine the project area stands facing a risk as severe as this again for hundreds of years. As a result, the justifications for proposed vegetation treatments … are suspect.”

And the use of helicopters in the logging plans should also be reevaluated, said Wilderness Workshop.

“There is no analysis of the potential impacts that helicopter use may have on resources and values in the project area,” it told the Forest Service. “We raised this issue in our scoping comments. Here, the agency failed to take a hard look at potential impacts of helicopter use.”

Wildfire and beetle kill have put lodgepole pine forests at risk, prompting the Cooperative Plan to propose thinning stands with patch cuts. The proposed widespread use of this forest tool has been challenged by Wilderness Workshop.
Wildfire and beetle kill have put lodgepole pine forests at risk, prompting the Cooperative Plan to propose thinning stands with patch cuts. The proposed widespread use of this forest tool has been challenged by Wilderness Workshop. Credit: Paul Andersen / Aspen Journalism

A forest of trust?

Forest Supervisor Fitzwilliams has read the comments from Wilderness Workshop.

And he knows that this is a place of special care for its users, referring to the Hunter Creek-Smuggler Mountain area as “Aspen’s city forest.”

“Trust is not fostered overnight,” he wrote in an introduction to the plan, “rather, it grows on this Forest through consistent dialogue and responsibly following through on informed actions.

“This process has engaged the community and stakeholders, listened to ideas, and allowed those with interest in the Hunter Creek and Smuggler Mountain area to tell our planning team what they want to see on the land,” Fitzwilliams said. “This plan strikes that balance by properly planning for nature and people within the landscape.”

Shoemaker sees the working collaborative process as a practical necessity.

“We remain concerned,” he said, “that some of the issues we brought up didn’t make it into the final document. So we wrote strong objections to make sure we have a seat at the table.”

Additional Sources:

Official document trove

Public comments on the plan

Wilderness Workshop’s objections to the plan

Plan map

Trail Opportunities

A map showing trail opportunities in the Hunter-Smuggler area.
A map showing trail opportunities in the Hunter-Smuggler area.