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The environment desk at Aspen Public Radio covers issues in the Roaring Fork Valley and throughout the state of Colorado including water use and quality, impact of recreation, population growth and oil and gas development. APR’s Environment Reporter is Elizabeth Stewart-Severy.

Forest Service budget woes lead to proposed land sales

Courtesy of Mark Duff

The U.S. Forest Service has taken initial steps to sell two properties totaling about 70 acres of land adjacent to Crown Mountain Park and the Roaring Fork River in the mid-valley. The move comes as the agency works to reduce costs amid funding cuts.

Mark Duff frequently takes his high school classes to a small wetland area on the Roaring Fork River. They study water chemistry, ecology and nature writing. This spot, he said, is perfect to pair science and personal experience. Plus, it’s public land that is close to school and easy to access.

“You know, these little postage stamp-sized chunks of land that are close to where people live have a lot of value,” Duff said.  

The U.S. Forest Service is poised to find out just how much value. The agency hopes to sell the 40-acre riverside property, along with a 30-acre lot in El Jebel at the old tree farm site. Both are labeled administrative parcels, and forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said their sale would provide much-needed funding for the agency.

“We are absolutely struggling to survive financially,” Fitzwilliams said.  

Congress has cut the U.S. Forest Service budget by about 58 percent in the past decade, and according to Fitzwilliams, there are virtually no funds available for capital improvements, like the needed repairs to the bunkhouse in Aspen and the district office in Carbondale.

In this financial desert, Fitzwilliam said, the agency can’t take care of properties like the one in El Jebel that has several dated homes on it that are used for Forest Service employee housing.

“We have 2.5 million acres to steward and maintain,” Fitzwilliams said. “Being a landlord and a property manager for multiple single family homes is a burden we can no longer afford.”

Selling off administrative lands like this is part of a larger strategy to simplify the Forest Service budget as it shrinks. The goal is to reduce maintenance overall, to oversee fewer facilities so that the little money the agency does have might go a bit further.

But the riverside property that the Forest Service is considering selling takes some unique consideration. All of those characteristics that make it an ideal spot for learning about both science and what nature does for the human soul should matter, said teacher Mark Duff.

“The intrinsic values of these chunks of land are greater than the extrinsic value, with the all-mighty dollar and all that,” he said.

Fitzwilliams agreed that the riparian area does warrant special attention.

“The ecological resources will be protected,” Fitzwilliams said. “And it’ll remain open to the public. Those two things will happen or we won’t sell it.”

Fitzgerald said those protections will be written into the contract and could take several forms, including a conservation easement or management by a local open space program.

The Forest Service is accepting public comment about the proposed sale until Jan. 20.

Aspen native Elizabeth Stewart-Severy is excited to be making a return to both the Red Brick, where she attended kindergarten, and the field of journalism. She has spent her entire life playing in the mountains and rivers around Aspen, and is thrilled to be reporting about all things environmental in this special place. She attended the University of Colorado with a Boettcher Scholarship, and graduated as the top student from the School of Journalism in 2006. Her lifelong love of hockey lead to a stint working for the Colorado Avalanche, and she still plays in local leagues and coaches the Aspen Junior Hockey U-19 girls.
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