Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan

Advocating for ecologically sensitive management in “Aspen’s backyard”
Arial view of Hunter Creek and Smuggler Mountain

Arial view of Hunter Creek and Smuggler Mountain. Photo courtesy of the Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan.

The Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan is an initiative to design and implement a variety of forest treatments and recreation planning in the Hunter Creek Valley and the northwest end of Smuggler Mountain. The project is being led by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies in consultation with the City of Aspen, Pitkin County and the Forest Service. The Wilderness Workshop, along with half a dozen other stakeholder groups, has provided input at various stages of the project as part of a focus group.

The plan proposes a series of forest treatments in an attempt to reduce the amount of beetle-killed trees, to increase aspen stands and to increase age diversity of the forest. We at WW have mixed feelings about these proposed treatments. Intensive forest management certainly has its place, specifically in the wildland-urban interface (the narrow strip of land that lies at the junction of homes and the forest). However, aggressive forest treatments that involve the use of bulldozers, helicopters and extensive thinning or clearcutting do not belong in the backcountry. If we do a good job protecting our homes and important infrastructure from wildfire by thinning trees and removing fuel in the immediate vicinity of structures (think several hundred yards from homes and other infrastructure), then natural and ecologically critical processes like wildfire and beetle infestations can play out on their own in the backcountry.

Throughout this processes we’ve cautioned against overly aggressive forest treatments, based on science and the philosophy that whenever possible it’s better to let natural processes play out rather than having to constantly manipulate the forest to achieve a desired result. Beetle infestations and changing locations of aspen stands often result in large stands of dying trees, yet both are part of nature’s way of adapting to changing conditions. As the climate warms and dries, aspen stands will shift uphill and a more diverse forest type will replace the lodgepole-pine monoculture which is so vulnerable to beetle outbreaks. Rather than trying to hold species in landscapes they can longer survive in, WW advocates for decreased fragmentation of ecosystems which can help them adapt and shift on their own.

As a voice for ecological principles, we’ve also pushed to ensure that trail development doesn’t occur in ecologically sensitive portions of the project area. Many of the trails in the Hunter-Smuggler area were built illegally (i.e., without Forest Service permission). While most of these trails are now well established and have been brought into the agency’s formal trail system, both the Forest Service and WW agree that the era of building bandit trails on our public lands is over. Recreation constitutes one of the biggest impacts and threats to our wildlife populations, largely due to the habitat fragmentation that comes with increased trail development and use.

Fortunately this doesn’t mean we can’t recreate in the backcountry or even build new trails. What it does mean is that we must utilize deliberate planning processes informed by good science and the advice of wildlife management professionals like those at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission. Throughout this planning process, we’ve consistently advocated for a trail system that avoids important wildlife habitat, preserves some areas of the project area as wild and undeveloped, and focuses on quality instead of quantity.