Construction on the new Aspen-Sopris Ranger District buildings in Carbondale is one step closer to becoming reality. The White River National Forest (WRNF) awarded a $6.3 million contract to Dare-Case Contracting Services LLC of Grand Junction on Sept. 28 — one day after WRNF Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams signed a new decision memo for the project. And, the plan to demolish the existing, 84-year old buildings and remove landmark trees from the lot at the corner of Weant Blvd and Main has attracted the attention of local residents. Close to 100 people attended the Aug. 22 Carbondale Board of Town Trustees (BOTT) meeting where Kevin Warner, district ranger for the Aspen/Sopris Ranger District, updated the trustees about the project. Most of those who spoke after Warner were upset about losing mature trees on the property to make room for a building they said would render Carbondale unrecognizable. “We are losing what I would call a cultural landscape,” said Laura Kirk. “It is something that has defined the character of our town as you enter on Main Street.”
The original project design included taking a wrecking ball to all buildings on the lot, pulling out seven trees, including the spruce trees facing Main Street, and staging the new building to accommodate a drive-through for large vehicles.
In May 2023, the WRNF told The Sopris Sun it will attempt to save the “community tree” at the corner of Weant and Main.
At the Aug. 22 meeting, the Bioregion Visioning Circle (BVC), a local citizens’ group, began presenting an alternative design that includes rotating the new building 90 degrees and changing the east-west orientation to north-south, which would preserve the old buildings and the trees.
BVC member Candice Hart told The Sopris Sun that it puts a more welcoming front door on Main Street. “It improves wheelchair access, pedestrian access, and creates opportunities for construction-sharing with the new public pool.” The Aug. 22 presentation was interrupted by time constraints. But, the group is nothing if not determined.
Diana Alcantara, another BVC member, told The Sopris Sun that she started petitions on paper and on change.org last summer. “We threw those together the week before Mountain Fair,” she said. “And by the end of the weekend, we collected 400 signatures.” The online petition has 602 signatures as of Oct. 4.
All told, Alcantara estimates she’s given the Town close to 1,400 signatures, but she said, despite the petitions and attending three trustee meetings in August and September, neither the town nor the WRNF have paid much attention to the group’s plan. “What our take-away from the town meetings is, it’s out to bid. It’s a done deal. We want the Forest Service downtown,” she said. “That has been said loud and clear by our mayor and certain town trustees.”
In a Sept. 8 email from Mayor Ben Bohmfalk to Ross Kribbs (provided to The Sopris Sun), Bohmfalk indicated that he has had enough. “I don’t plan to spend any additional time on this issue in any way,” he wrote. “I apologize in advance for not responding to any additional emails or questions about this.”
Bohmfalk told The Sopris Sun that he was not speaking on behalf of the Board of Trustees in the email. “I have to be efficient with how I use my time, and sometimes somebody wants to keep talking about an issue that in my mind is resolved,” he explained. “On my end, this is resolved and I’m not going to respond to every detailed question about it going forward.”
He said he is not prohibiting the public from bringing their concerns to him. He mentioned other opportunities for involvement, including writing letters or meeting him for “coffee with the mayor” on Fridays from 8 to 9am at Bonfire. “[The BOTT] has heard it out and we’ve decided that we’re not going to intervene and the Forest Service is going forward,” he said. “We’ve helped them hear feedback from our residents, so we’re moving on to other things. But I’m not restricting people’s ability to engage in any way.”
To its credit, the WRNF modified the design to reduce the number of trees that will be felled (Sopris Sun, Aug. 9, 2023). Nonetheless, the BVC alerted Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and Representative Lauren Boebert about the situation, and will host a public forum on Thursday, Oct. 5 to present the alternative plan. “We’re hoping maybe this public forum will help build a better [USFS] response to the community,” Hart said. “We’ve asked the town trustees for [a forum] and they wouldn’t do it.” Town officials, legislators and the USFS have been invited.
The BVC also questions the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process during the run-up to the final decision memo, signed on Sept. 27 by Fitzwilliams. “We’re basically just asking for them to pause the project and do a better process, follow their own standards and guidelines,” explained Hart. “And not use a categorical exclusion of repair and maintenance when they’re building a whole new building.”
A categorical exclusion — or catex — is arguably a legitimate part of the NEPA process. It defines categories of federal agency actions that are determined not to have a significant impact on the human environment and allows the agency to forego environmental analyses. Catex guidelines have been modified many times over the past five decades, most recently in 2020.
The initial catex for this project was signed by Fitzwilliams on Nov. 6, 2019 when the rulemaking process to change catex guidelines was already underway. On Jan. 3, 2018, the USFS announced plans for the rulemaking. The proposed rule was published in June 2019, five months before Fitzwilliams signed the first catex. The final rule was published on Nov. 19, 2020. But, it wasn’t until three years later, on Sept. 25, 2023, that the WRNF opened a web page about the building redesign project. Fitzwilliams signed a second catex on Sept. 27, more than three weeks after the bidding process closed and two days before the construction bid was awarded to Dare-Case.
According to online USFS documents, the first catex was the best fit for the project at the time and Fitzwilliams’ “letter to the file” was sufficient approval. But, why did he sign the first catex five months after the proposed new rule was published?
“I didn’t know the rule existed,” he told The Sopris Sun. “This new rulemaking was not something I was tracking at the time.”
He added that the WRNF is not engaged in a conspiracy, he just has more important things to do. “I worry a lot more about a community burning to the ground than ‘I don’t like the entrance of a building,’” he said. “I’m sorry, but I just have a lot more concern about how to manage 18 million visitors a year and how the effects of those visitors [impact] wildlife and habitat fragmentation. These are the things that I think I get paid to do.”
Fitzwilliams also said that the Great American Outdoors Act funding, which has been portrayed as time sensitive, is limited by how much was appropriated for this project and rising construction costs. In other words, the money won’t disappear if the project is changed, but increased costs could create the need for more money than was originally allocated
Fitzwilliams figures a complete redesign would cost maybe $200,000. “Then we go out for another bid, wait a year, the price is going up, and all these changes could require more money,” he said. “If I say I don’t have the money to do all that, in all likelihood they’re gonna move the money somewhere else.”
The BVC’s public forum is at the Third Street Center on Thursday. Oct 5, beginning at 6pm.