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Creative Partnerships and Collaborations – Honor: Hunter Creek – Smuggler Mountain Cooperative Plan

The Hunter Creek-Smuggler Mountain Cooperative Plan (Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan) will decrease the negative impacts of wildfire on the Aspen community, improve the safety and quality of the recreation experience, promote a healthy and diverse forest, manage wildlife habitats to support diversity, expand educational opportunities to promote ecological and historical understanding, incorporate existing infrastructure such as roads into an improved system, and promote local economic development through cooperation and partnerships across land managers and community groups.

Located on the White River National Forest outside of Aspen, the planning area covered 4,681 acres of National Forest System (NFS) land adjacent to Smuggler Mountain Open Space and private property. It is the scenic backdrop for the community of Aspen. The primary geographic features consist of Smuggler Mountain and Hunter Creek Valley. The former is directly adjacent to Aspen and a very popular area for three-season hiking and mountain biking. The latter is a picturesque alpine valley with mining, logging, and homesteading relics, lush vegetation, and outstanding year-round recreational trails. Together these two areas provide a haven for wildlife and the enjoyment of the outdoors.

A primary purpose of the Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan was to examine the forest health of Smuggler Mountain and the Hunter Creek Valley. The area is comprised of mostly even-aged Lodgepole pine at risk of mountain pine beetle (MPB) infestation, and is a disturbance-driven ecosystem that has not seen fire or other significant disturbance in over 100 years. The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) sought to conduct a planning process to examine what areas of the landscape should be prioritized for forest health treatments, such as thinning, prescribed fire and verbenone (MPB repellent) applications. This alone was an unconventional idea: a non-profit organization aiming to plan and implement forest health treatments on federal lands for the benefit of the community.

At the first planning team meeting between the City of Aspen, Pitkin County, ACES and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), it became obvious that the process was not solely about forest health, but also had to include an examination of wildlife habitat, recreation, infrastructure, environmental education, and economic development. The City and County have invested a great deal of effort into projects on adjacent open space areas and have for many years desired to work with the USFS to plan for a more cohesive management of the greater area. The Hunter-Smuggler Plan process provided the opportunity to bring together these entities to cooperatively plan for this important landscape.

In addition to the lead organizations, a Focus Group was formed to encompass community stakeholder groups, such as Wilderness Workshop (Hidden Gems), Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, and Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association. For groups that do not necessarily align philosophically, this process was able to identify their shared values. The goal was not consensus, but solutions that left each stakeholder feeling like they “won” in some regard. To that end, a zone management approach was developed, in which certain zones are targeted more towards forest health and wildlife, and minimize recreation; other zones have a recreation-focus, and recognize the value that it provides to the economy and quality of life in Aspen.

The Hunter Creek-Smuggler Mountain Cooperative Plan sets forth a management plan that was not only founded on cooperative planning, but will rely on partnerships and collaboration in the future. It recognizes that in light of budget cuts at the federal level, the USFS cannot act on forest health, recreation and other projects as effectively as they would like. They need to rely on local partners for time and resources to get them accomplished. The City of Aspen, Pitkin County, and volunteer organizations will act as partners for managing this landscape as a result of the Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan.

This project is very unique for several reasons. Most importantly, it brought land managers together to plan across their respective management boundaries for the benefit of the greater landscape. The USFS and adjacent communities, such as Aspen, rarely plan their resources together in this way, though they are inextricably tied through natural processes and scales of recreation. The Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan is a new model for the USFS and adjacent communities to cooperatively plan for and manage their surrounding landscapes.

To do this, the planning process began with an intensive visioning process, which included a community open house, several Focus Group meetings, and many planning team meetings. Given the diverse range of interests involved, and the contentious nature of some of the planning topics (e.g., illegal trail building on the forest, wildlife habitat protection, wildland urban interface/fire management), it was critical to establish a foundation upon which to base conceptual planning. This was the first time that this group of individuals had sat around a table and shared their ideas, concerns and goals with each other, and the enthusiasm for the sustainability of this landscape was strong. The vision was a powerful tool moving forward, and lives on in the document as Chapter 3, to remind decision-makers and others who are implementing the plan of these shared values and goals for the future.

The planning phase of the process was equally collaborative, but required more focused discussions, technical analysis, and time. Nearly a dozen meetings between the planning team, the Focus Group, and stakeholder groups (trails, fire managers, etc.) ensured that each idea was properly tested—conceptually against the vision for the planning area; scientifically for its impacts to resources; and from a management perspective to ensure that ideas could ultimately be implemented. Similar to the visioning phase, the planning phase required diverse interest groups to work together, and sometimes compromise, so that the process could move forward steadily. At one community meeting, the group of attendees grabbed chairs and formed a giant circle. The conversation that resulted was tense, yet honest, and allowed groups such as mountain bikers and trail builders to sit face-to- face with wildlife managers and conservationists to understand one another’s points-of-view. An unprecedented outcome of the plan was an agreement that was forged between those groups to respect one another’s interests in the future (i.e., halt illegal trail building on public lands that could interfere with wildlife habitat).

Another innovative element of this plan was that it put community-based visioning and planning at the forefront of a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. NEPA evaluation and approval is required for any action on federal lands. Typically, the planning is not done in a way that involves the community or key stakeholders, but rather between a small group of individuals. The proposal is then folded into a NEPA document and released to the public for review. In the case of the Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan, the community was integral to first articulating the vision for the landscape, then developing a set of recommendations to achieve that vision, before the formal approval process began.

The common thread that sets this project apart is the level to which the community, land managers, public officials and planners came together to cooperatively plan and improve Aspen’s most cherished natural landscape. This new approach can be replicated in any community surrounded by federal lands. Through blurring management boundaries and relying on effective partnerships, this model will lead to measurable benefits for the greater ecosystem and recreational landscape anywhere that it is applied.
 

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