I wake up each day torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. It makes it hard to plan my day.

:: E. B. White

Public Access to the Hunter Creek Valley Permanently Protected: A 17 Year Saga

“Hunter Creek in Winter” © Dottie Fox

In this celebrated case, wealthy new landowners clashed with public access advocates in Aspen over the status of the 100 year-old mining era Hunter Creek Toll Road which traversed their 70-acre parcel bordering the National Forest.  Built during the mining era, the road had been used by the public for over a century to traverse Red Mountain roads and trails from town to public national forest and wilderness lands.  In l988 the landowners closed the road that had traditionally provided access to the 82,450 acre Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness and to the valley floor, the “backyard” of Aspen. After 17 years and three separate litigations, all stakeholders settled on a compromise guaranteeing 24/7 public recreational access and insuring that the landowners would not be subject to motorized traffic except during hunting season.

In 1988, in Aspen, “FREE HUNTER CREEK” was emblazoned on T-shirts and bumper stickers. Hardly a week went by the next four years without a County Commission or Court hearing, a front-page article or lead editorial, a full-page ad announcing a picnic or ski-in, or an incident of harassment on public roads and trails accessing this popular recreation area.  The landowners, their caretakers and their “attack poodles” were occasionally ticketed by the Sheriff or sued by private citizens.  From the outset, the Friends were represented pro bono by Tim McFlynn.  Within a few years, nearly 1000 people had joined the Friends, including Elizabeth Paepcke and five former Aspen Mayors.

Elizabeth Paepcke

Today, thanks to Pitkin County and the Friends of Hunter Creek, the public enjoys perpetual rights of public access from Aspen to the nearby Hunter Creek Valley — the back yard of Aspen — and to the pristine 82,450 acre Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness beyond. This is the culmination of one state and two federal court litigations, a 50-witness trial in U.S. District Court in 1993, and interminable years awaiting Court rulings and participating in stop-and-go settlement negotiations.

In 2002, following issuance of the federal court’s Order locating the route of the public road — from Aspen, through the maze of high-end homes on Red Mountain, and on to the national forest boundary — the landowners’ appeal to the 10th Circuit was gath

ering momentum. Public Counsel immediately retained former Colorado Supreme Court justice Jean Dubofsky as the appellate attorney for the Friends of Hunter Creek. During the next three years, Ms. Dubofsky skillfully guided the case through 10th Circuit mediation to a long-awaited final settlement.

Wisely, Pitkin County, the Friends, and all of the affected Red Mountain landowners settled for limited rather than unlimited public access. In so doing, the interests of all parties were harmonized so as to preserve as much as possible the sanctity of this very special place — for tomorrow’s flora and fauna as well as for all who find time for a lunch hour walk or ski, an afternoon ride, a day or two of hiking or fishing, a summer or winter hut trip, a week of hunting, or an extended adventure into permanently protected wilderness.

The settlement protects these lands from being overrun by “too much access”(e.g., vehicular, dirt bike, snowmobile, tour bus … even asphalt). As the Agreement recites, a balance has been struck that will “guarantee suitable public access to the Hunter Creek Valley and aid in the preservation of the Hunter Creek Valley.”

Hunter Creek Valley

The Friends of Hunter Creek was the torch bearer from the outset, founded in 1988 by two former Aspen Mayors when the landowners closed and barricaded the historic North Road as it passed through their 70 acres. Pitkin County had to be convinced to assert public ownership of these historic roads and trails and not abandon public access to public lands. Through the entire 17-year saga, the Friends were led by the same dedicated conservationists and backcountry enthusiasts who had worked together in the early ’70s on another project to protect this land — securing Congressional approval of the federal purchase of the entire Hunter Creek valley floor from McCulloch Oil Company. This averted a planned 1,200-house subdivision with a planned gondola serving the subdivision from Aspen.

Highlights of the 2005 settlement include:

  • 24/7 motorized access and parking at the national forest boundary guaranteed for handicapped or senior citizens or school children on educational outings.
  • 24/7 motorized as well as non-motorized access to the much larger BLM parking lot (for general public parking).
  • Perpetual easements for mountain bike users and hikers along a ravine route.
  • A perpetual conservation easement granted by the landowners to Aspen Valley Land Trust along Hunter Creek.
  • A perpetual Nordic Trail easement granted by the landowners to Pitkin County and prohibiting snow plowing.
  • Hunter access from 7 days before until 7 days after hunting season.

Public Counsel acknowledges that funding for this project has been generously provided by hundreds of Roaring Fork Valley citizens and contributors.

© David Hiser

© Burnie Arndt

© Gino Hollander