Pitkin County and the U.S. Forest Service are teaming up to create the positions of two full-time forest protection officers who will be tasked with stepping up enforcement of regulations in areas where country roads and property interface with White River National Forest lands.
At a work session Tuesday, county commissioners agreed to direct staff to form a contract with the Forest Service in which $100,000 from the county’s 2020 budget would be provided to the USFS to create the full-time jobs. While the county will allot money toward their salaries, the officers would be employed by the Forest Service, which will provide their housing and benefits.
A memorandum to commissioners from three officials — Public Works Director Brian Pettet and Open Space and Trails Director Gary Tennenbaum of the county and USFS Recreation Director Shelly Grail — notes that increased recreational activity such as paddle-boarding and off-highway-vehicle riding is causing problems in certain areas.
The illegal activity includes Roaring Fork River paddle-boarders and floaters who leave the water to trespass onto prohibited areas along the North Star Nature Preserve and people who ride unlicensed OHVs on county roads or use such vehicles on county and USFS lands where motorized activity of that nature is forbidden.
Officials at Tuesday’s meeting spoke about how a seasonal approach to enforcement, including allowing staff from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies to monitor the site, has not been working. Also this year, commissioners budgeted $50,000 to fund two seasonal forest protection officers, but that plan did not work out because of hiring difficulties. The memo states that “seasonal workers are hard to find and hard to keep.”
“USFS staff believes that regular year-round staff positions will be much easier to fill and to retain than the current seasonal effort,” the memo says. “[Forest protection officers] will patrol and enforce high-use areas in Pitkin County and will provide a consistent presence.”
Parking near the Wildwood put-in at the nature preserve was identified as a concern. Pitkin County also has been working with the USFS in other areas to enforce seasonal closures, including Independence Pass, Lincoln Creek, Castle Creek, Avalanche Creek, Perham Creek and Red Wind Point.
“Recreational and transient use of Pitkin County and USFS lands has dramatically increased; a consistent presence of education and enforcement will help the current situation and protect the natural resources,” the memo says.
At the meeting, Pettet said that OHV enforcement is the county’s biggest concern. While Tennenbaum pointed to ongoing parking problems near the put-in at the nature preserve, he acknowledged that the situation has improved recently.
Commissioner George Newman suggested that the time has come to forego the educational approaches and warnings, and to start ticketing violators. “I think we need to get tough,” he said.
Grail said that while there will never be enough enforcement for all of the areas of concern, “Two people is awesome. It’s way better than what we can do with zero.”
Commissioner Patti Clapper said one of the issues is that paddle-board outfitters who are permitted at the nature preserve are bringing too many people there. Newman added that he is concerned about rampant alcohol and drug use along the river.
Tennenbaum said part of the problem is that North Star is the only area close to Aspen with water calm enough to allow people to paddle-board, one reason why it has become so popular. While conditions at Ruedi Reservoir, several miles east of Basalt, can accommodate the outdoor activity, it’s considered too far away for many Aspen visitors and locals.
Overall, Tennenbaum said the two full-time hires won’t solve the problem, but he pronounced it as “as a good first step.”
USFS officials said they would soon proceed with hiring plans, and hope to have at least one of the officers in place by the end of the year. County money allocated toward unfilled USFS seasonal officer positions from 2019 would carry over to cover the cost of the new hires through March, at which time the 2020 money would kick in.
The plan will require review from the county’s Open Space and Trails Board with regard to an allocation of county money to the OST department to provide partial funding for one of the two officer positions.