Ute ladies'-tresses, Spiranthes diluvialis, is a native orchid found in the wetlands managed by the Forest Service in El Jebel. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps you’re familiar, perhaps not, but the Forest Service administrative site on Valley Road, east of El Jebel and Crown Mountain Park, is bracing for change. Thirty acres of the 70-acre site, which has been used for Forest Service employee housing for decades, is slated for conveyance and its future use is yet to be determined.

The Forest Service is conducting an environmental assessment for the 30-acre upper parcel which, in part, calls for a public outreach period. Public comment closes on March 28.

“Our decision is about whether to convey the land, not what the future use of the land might be,” explained Forest Service public affairs officer David Boyd. “However, we will analyze potential future uses in the environmental assessment.”

In 2016, the entirety of the two parcels (70 acres) was proposed for conveyance and went through a civic process. However, “because of resource concerns with the 40-acre lower parcel,” the Forest Service revised its proposal to only include the upper 30-acre administrative site this time around.

The 40-acre lower parcel “provides public access to the Roaring Fork River for recreation and is ecologically important for a variety of riparian species, including the federally listed threatened species, Ute Ladies’ Tresses, which is in the orchid family,” Boyd explained to The Sopris Sun.

The broader area, including Crown Mountain Park, once served as a tree nursery and was acquired by the Forest Service in 1961.

In 1994, Eagle County obtained 132 acres of the old tree farm through a legislative land exchange with the Forest Service. Today, the county leases most of the 132 acres to Crown Mountain.

To make things interesting, pursuant to the 1994 legislation, both Eagle and Pitkin counties have the right of first refusal for a conveyance of the property. According to Boyd, both counties have expressed their intent to exercise the right. 

“It’s intended to be a partnership between Eagle County and Pitkin County,” assured Tori Franks, resiliency director of Eagle County. “What that means, we haven’t even begun…”

“We are unable to effectively maintain the aging property and facilities,” explained Boyd. “Selling or leasing the property could provide funding for the maintenance or enhancement of other Forest [Service] administrative sites, which could include redevelopment of the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District office, construction of employee housing, and/or development of facilities at the Forest Service’s Rose Lane administrative property.”

Boyd added, “Selling or leasing would also provide an opportunity for the land to serve other community needs.”

Eagle County conducted its own public outreach process, which was summarized in a comprehensive report, in May 2021. “Those listening sessions were separate from our process,” specified Boyd, “and focused on what concerns and potential uses people would be interested in, should Eagle County acquire the parcel.” The primary suggested uses among participants were: conservation, housing or recreation.

Public comment

The Sopris Sun got the chance to catch up with a few interested individuals during a public open house, organized by the Forest Service, on March 7 at the Eagle County Community Center in El Jebel.

“We’re residents and are immediately impacted; our home is directly across Valley Road,” said John Fortunato. He and his wife, Jen Mueller, are concerned with the “density or intensity” of potential use. “Traffic along Valley Road is a huge concern,” said Mueller. “If you put something there that’s going to generate a lot of traffic per day, then the road is not going to be able to handle it.” She added, “We just want to maintain the existing character.”

Of the three options which arose from the Eagle County listening sessions, Fortunato and Mueller favor continued open space. “But, senior housing appeals to me more than apartments or condominiums because I know that seniors do need housing and I don’t think that they take as many car trips as other people might,” stated Mueller.

“There’s nine acres of that portion that Crown Mountain would like for other facilities,” Crown Mountain board member Ted Bristol told The Sopris Sun.

Neighbor Jeff White brought up that putting additional housing in the area may hamper activities at Crown Mountain in order to appease another hypothetical homeowners’ association. Bristol concurred that because the land is currently managed by the federal government, Crown Mountain hasn’t had to consult them for planned events at, or upgrades to, the park.

To chime into the conversation, visit www.bit.ly/eljebelsite