Bells closed to cars amid government shutdown

by Chad Abraham, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Forest Service shutters facilities, county closes Maroon Creek Road

Scores of angry and disappointed visitors were turned away from the Maroon Bells on Tuesday morning after the U.S. Forest Service announced it was closing its facilities — including parking lots — and most campgrounds because of the budget stalemate in Congress.

The Forest Service announcement, in turn, led the Pitkin County commissioners to order that Maroon Creek Road be shut down at the height of the colorful leaf-changing season. Ahead of what is to be one of the busiest weekends of the fall, the road is to be closed to vehicles at T-Lazy-7 Ranch, pending a resolution to the government shutdown.

Commissioners said there were simply too many public-safety issues to allow vehicles up to one of the nation’s most-photographed vistas. Sheriff Joe DiSalvo told county officials that there will be no rangers to respond to emergencies or get word to Mountain Rescue Aspen for backcountry incidents. There’s also no cell-phone service, he noted.

During an hour or so Tuesday morning, some 100 vehicles had either parked along the road as people walked up past a temporary closure gate below the Forest Service ranger station or turned around to drive back down. The road is open to cyclists as well as pedestrians.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is only running buses up to the Bells on the weekends, something that will not happen should the congressional stalemate continue. This weekend is to be the last for bus service to the area, and because the Forest Service shut down its parking lot, buses don’t have room to turn around to get back down.

The Forest Service, like other agencies, shut down most of its essential services because Congress could not agree on a bill to continue funding the government.

Of the 200 or so full-time and seasonal workers furloughed in the 2.3 million acre White River National Forest, about 10 people were still on the job without pay, said Scott Fitzwilliams, forest supervisor.

“It’s not fun,” he said of ordering staff to go home and shutting down facilities across the forest.

Nor was it fun for those turned away from the Bells starting at around 10 a.m. Tuesday.

“Tell the government, F you,” said one man from California, sitting in a car in a line of vehicles near the gate. “They think this is going to get them more support? F them.”

“I really had my heart set on this,” said his wife, urging him to walk with her up the road for a bit. Neither wanted to give their names.

Jim Cambon of Fort Collins said authorities should have had a closure sign farther down the road to prevent people from driving to the gate.

“What, they didn’t know the government was closed down until now?” he said. (The county plans on installing electronic signs about the closure on the road, including one at T-Lazy-7, which is the last place people towing campers can turn around).

Fitzwilliams said he didn’t learn about the closure order, which came from the Forest Service’s regional office in Denver, until 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

“We know it’s a huge inconvenience,” he said. “It’s nothing we want to do.”

Upon getting the order, Fitzwilliams said the first priority was alerting staff that they had until noon to finish work and go home. But many employees were, or still are, on assignments in the backcountry, he said. Getting word to them will take time.

Meanwhile, before the gate came down at 10 a.m., at least 15 vehicles were allowed up to the Bells parking area. Day users and people on multi-day backpacking trips often park at the upper Bells lot.

That left Forest Service staff like Martha Moran, Aspen recreational specialist, scrambling to figure out how to get word to those people, who would drive down to a locked gate.

She said she planned on putting flyers on windshields that would instruct them to contact a campground host to be let out or use a numerical code provided on the flyer. (Campground hosts are allowed to stay but are not permitted to perform their usual functions.)

 Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Visitors en route to the Maroon Bells were stopped by a closure gate just past T-Lazy-7 Ranch on Tuesday as a result of the federal government shutdown. Hikers and bicyclists were allowed to proceed past the gate, but no cars were allowed up maroon Creek Road. All the facilities at the Bells were closed, including parking lots, bathrooms and campgrounds.

“Trying to make lemonade out of lemons,” Moran said.

The Forest Service’s Bells closure caught Pitkin County officials somewhat by surprise.

“We knew national parks and such would be closed,” said County Manager Jon Peacock. “I don’t think it was always clear that facilities like the Bells would be closed.”

Commissioner George Newman said officials “just didn’t connect the dots when we were thinking about the impacts here locally.”

“It’s a little unusual since it’s a county road but the parking areas and facilities are owned by the federal government,” he said. “Once they close that down, it really does impact the ability to maintain the county road.”

To keep the area open, the county offered to the feds portable toilets, law enforcement and traffic management, but Peacock said local Forest Service officials were in no position to even discuss the overture.

The local office “had a huge task to close down all the district facilities in a very short time,” Peacock said in an email. “The Forest Service was not in a position to consider the county’s offer of assistance to keep the parking area open, much less accept or negotiate it.”

Fitzwilliams agreed, saying that while he and other White River officials “very much appreciate [the county’s offer], the problem is we have explicit instructions to shut down sites, not pursue new agreements.”

The county had hoped to keep the road open for buses and vehicles, Peacock said.

“However, with expectations of a very busy week and weekend, and no parking, bus turnaround or bathroom facilities, the county could not keep the road open and protect public safety or the environment,” he said.

Cambon, the would-be Bells visitor from Fort Collins, didn’t fault local officials as much as one political party.

“We blame the Republicans,” he said.

Commissioner Michael Owsley did as well. In the county meeting, he said Pitkin County’s congressional representative, Republican Scott Tipton, should be told that Washington’s impasse is impacting one of the nation’s “iconic” places.

“The nation needs to speak up,” he said. “Life is not better when we don’t have the federal government.”

Tipton on Saturday released a statement about why he voted to delay President Obama’s health-care initiative, a vote that led to the government’s shutdown.

Tipton said he “received a strong message from my constituents — keep government open and stop the Obamacare train-wreck in the most effective way possible.”

In an interview, Owsley said Tipton was a Tea Party member “whose goal is to shut down the federal government.

“I’m not sure that shutting down the Maroon Bells serves anyone in this country, and I know it doesn’t serve Pitkin County,” Owsley said.

Moran was directing people coming to the Bells to head to Ashcroft, and Commissioner Rob Ittner said it was important to put forth the message that Aspen remains open for business.

“The Hunter Creek Valley will be fabulous,” added Commissioner Rachel Richards.

The loss of rangers on local trails could put a larger burden on Mountain Rescue Aspen and other aspects of public safety, she said.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Richards said. “It will decay as we move forward.”

Campgrounds: What’s closed and open

Scott Fitzwilliams, U.S. Forest Service supervisor for the White River National Forest, gave this list when asked about campground closures in the Roaring Fork Valley:

• Maroon Bells

• Avalanche between Carbondale and Redstone

• Dinkle Lake near Mount Sopris

• Portal, which is on Lincoln Creek Road

People in those campgrounds will have until Thursday to vacate.

All other area campgrounds are contracted out to private concessionaires and remain open for the time being, Fitzwilliams said.

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