A plan for uphill recreational opportunities that addresses the economic potential of the valley’s backcountry areas is now complete.
In 2018, the Aspen City Council designated the plan as one of its top 10 goals. The recreation plan is advisory only, and is one component of the larger Uphill Economic Development Plan adopted in 2017.
While Aspen’s economy has long relied on recreationalists, in the past that has meant those looking to have an on-resort skiing experience. The ski industry worldwide is watching those visitors grow older and move on to other pastimes, and on the whole they aren’t being replaced by members of the younger generation.
“Demographics are shifting and it will affect the type of visitors coming to Aspen to recreate,” said Phillip Supino, the city’s principal long-range planner. He oversaw development of the recreational plan.
“Younger outdoor enthusiasts are interested in adventure-based, physically challenging recreation opportunities,” he said.
The city surveyed 2,500 self-described uphillers to create a demographic profile of the type of visitor who might venture to Aspen and the surrounding areas based on its backcountry. They were asked how far they were willing to travel for the experience and what kind of events they would travel to Aspen for.
“[We looked at] how to have a recreational offering that attracts a different type of visitor, that isn't buying that [ski resort] product,” Supino said.
The city’s community development department contracted with a planning and design consultant, the SE Group, to analyze infrastructure that’s already in the area that could be promoted or perfected to encourage outdoor recreationists.
“It’s economic development without the development,” Supino said.
The plan covers backcountry skiing, nordic skiing, uphill skiing and the backcountry hut system, as well as summer activities like hiking, biking and camping. The plan generally finds that Aspen’s backcountry infrastructure is strong, but that the uphill economy could be strengthened through increased information, such as maps and trailhead kiosks.
The plan recommends promoting trails and throughways that already exist, and concentrating use in those areas to preserve backcountry wilderness as much as possible.
“Accommodating users in a way that conserves the natural environment will be vital,” the plan states. “Going forward, the city will look to encourage use within suitable, existing high-use areas.”
Along with the uphill survey, the city brought together 17 stakeholders who met regularly to weigh in on the creation of the plan. Stakeholders included representatives from the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, Aspen Skiing Co., Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Wilderness Workshop.
“Protecting public lands is fundamental to our entire economy, whether it’s recreation or real estate or listening to a music concert surrounded by protected vistas,” said Will Roush, executive director of Wilderness Workshop.
Roush compares the recreation industry to the oil-and-gas industry, which also operates on Western Slope public lands.
“Just like any other industry on public lands there’s probably places where it’s appropriate and places where it’s not appropriate,” Roush said.
Having a plan is a good first step toward ensuring conversation is considered or prioritized while boosting the outdoor recreation industry.
“We need to be really aware that it has impacts and we need to plan to reduce those,” Roush said.
By concentrating visitors to planned corridors, high-priority habitats and their winter and summer “concern areas” can be avoided.
“Better to improve a trail system in an area where there is already a lot of use and you’ve probably already impacted that area quite a bit, and then leave areas with low usage or very little usage alone,” he said.
The plan emphasizes using land that SkiCo has permitted for use within the White River National Forest, “because we know that landscape has already been pretty impacted,” Roush said.
The plan states that right now, though many visitors come to the area for its scenic views such as Independence Pass or the Maroon Bells, not many come for backcountry use. It recommends highlighting some of the easy-to-access, picture-perfect places in order to get more tourists to experience local trails.
“For the success of the uphill economy, the city will need to increasingly draw visitors planning their trip around outdoor recreation, while also introducing sightseeing visitors to uphill opportunities and encouraging them to extend their stay in the area,” the plan says. “These uphill opportunities should be easily accessible, well-promoted and offer impressive scenic views.”
The Uphill Economy Recreation Plan will be presented to the city’s Open Space and Trails Board this week and the county’s Open Space and Trails Board later this month. Aspen council members and Pitkin County commissioners will hear the presentation later this summer.
Since the plan is advisory, it does not put into place anything that would need to be voted on. In the future, if portions of it are to be implemented, those elements would undergo a public process.