Red hill people walking

Hikers at the trailhead of the Red Hill Recreation Area, which is accessed by a roughly quarter-mile stroll up a county road. After a land purchase by AVLT, the trailhead will be relocated, at some point, to a spot near the parking lot.

Hikers tired of having to access the popular Red Hill trail system outside Carbondale via a quarter-mile slog up County Road 107 may find reprieve by next fall.

The Carbondale-based Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT) recently purchased a 25-acre parcel adjacent to the Red Hill Recreation Area, which is administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

AVLT closed on the deal in December. The land, long owned by Arizona resident Ruth Pfleider, had been recently listed for $1.1 million. AVLT got it for $825,000.

The deal has been a long time coming, and there is still additional fundraising necessary before recreationists will be able to bypass County Road 107.

“This is a project that we first made a run at five or six years ago with [Carbondale] and [Garfield] County as part of a broader ‘Gateway Park’ initiative, which eventually fell through,” said AVLT executive director Suzanne Stephens. “When the property was relisted this summer and the price reduced by $1 million, the town, county, BLM and neighbors brought us to the table to discuss how we might acquire the land.

“It’s been a priority parcel for a long time — not because it’s pristine or magnificent wildlife habitat, but because it’s so visible from the highway and from town and holds the key to accessing the Red Hill Rec Area,” Stephens continued. “In addition, it is subject to a ’90s-era Red Hill PUD, which permits highway commercial development that could have really impacted the entrance to town. The risk of it being developed is now off the table.”

With the deed for the land in hand, AVLT now turns its efforts to raising enough money to initiate the next phase — planning and constructing new trail connections to Red Hill, moving the trailhead to the bottom of the hill, and creating a management fund to enable the town to care for the parcel once ownership is transferred.

AVLT needs to raise another $370,000 to get that ball rolling.

“It’s not yet open to public access, and we need to raise the rest of the project funding in order to do the trails and give the land to the town to manage and open for public access,” Stephens said. “We’ve given ourselves until Jan. 15, since we knew the timeline was too short to raise it all before closing on the property in December. We expect some donations and pledges will come in after that date, but as long as we know where it’s coming from, we’ll be on track to keep moving ahead.”

If AVLT hits its funding goals, trail planning will begin right away and a new trail below Red Hill could be built by the fall, she said.

“Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers has selected this for one of its 2018 trail projects, so they are on board to work on at least the pedestrian trail,” Stephens said.

If ALVT doesn’t hit the fundraising deadline, “we’ll have to keep going. It will set us back on timing for the trails,” she said. “And ultimately if we fail to raise the money at all, we’d have to trim back the project goals until we can raise it.”

Money for the purchase of the property came from a variety of sources, including $300,000 from AVLT’s coffers, $200,000 from Ruth H. Brown Foundation, $50,000 from the town of Carbondale, $100,000 from Abigail Wexner and $100,000-plus from community members.

“We anticipate $200,000 from Garfield County, but that’s not yet committed, but hopefully it will be as of a Jan. 15 board of county commissioners meeting,” Stephens said.

According to Stephens, the goal of the project is three-fold: protect the scenic entrance to Carbondale, address a public safety issue on the county road and improve access to the existing public recreation area.

“This is both a land-preservation project and a public-access project,” she said. “We have our fair share of public access properties, having been founded as a parks organization, though they are certainly the minority with most of our protected properties being ranches.”

There is no set timetable for turning the parcel over to Carbondale.

“That all depends on whether we reach our Jan. 15 fundraising goal,” Stephens said. “We have to do a bunch of paperwork creating a conservation easement. Our goal is within the next few months, but it might take longer.”

Once that transfer occurs, the land will be under the jurisdiction of the Carbondale Parks and Recreation Department.

“Carbondale is better positioned to take on the liability and management of a property like this, but AVLT will retain a conservation easement, so we will remain involved, and the property will be protected while allowing for some reorganization of roads, parking and trails at the base of the property,” Stephens said. “All in all, it’s been a magnificent partnership with the town that has really clicked in to place.”

Carbondale is stoked on several levels.

“For us, this is really a safety issue, getting people off that road,” said Eric Brendlinger, director of Carbondale’s Parks and Recreation Department. “The issue is not just about users of the Red Hill trails, but also people driving on that road. Homeowners living above the trailhead have had to deal with people all over the place year-round for a long time.

“This is a great plan and a terrific addition to Carbondale,” Brendlinger continued. “The land trust is working to get a management endowment established that will help us take care of the property, because we have limited resources. I hope the public values the opportunity this presents.”

The plan is to construct two new trails leading into the Red Hill Recreation Area.

“Hopefully, there will be one trail for hikers and another, wider trail for more general use,” Stephens said. “But I can’t promise that. We still have to do engineering studies, and it’s dependent on fundraising. There’ll definitely be at least one trail.”

The main sticking point at this juncture is parking, which is now limited to a park-and-ride lot that is often crammed full.

“That’s out of AVLT’s jurisdiction,” Stephens said. “The goal is to have a new parking lot and trailhead. The town is in discussions with the Colorado Department of Transportation and Garfield County about that. We have no influence, but CDOT has been very cooperative.”

AVLT’s fundraising efforts for its Red Hill project will continue on Thursday at the Marble Distillery in Carbondale from 5:30-7:30 p.m. There will be cocktails and appetizers.

AVLT, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last winter, is Colorado’s oldest land trust.

Originally named the Parks Association, it was created by a group of citizens, led by John Doremus, Eve Homeyer and Francis Whitaker, who were interested in preserving the natural environment of Aspen and the surrounding area.

The group planted flower gardens, initiated a city clean-up campaign and began an Arbor Day tradition by planting 50 trees along Main Street in Aspen. At the same time, the Parks Association established a separate legal entity, Park Trust, Ltd., in order to receive and manage gifts of land.

AVLT has now helped to conserve, either via outright acquisition or the establishment of conservation easements, about 39,000 acres.