Sen. Udall's drive on the mild side

Politicians motor up Smuggler to talk about the outdoors

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenJuly 29, 2010

It was obvious that Saturday wasn't your usual day on Smuggler Mountain when White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams drove his family in their silver Volkswagen sedan about a third of the way up the dirt road, before throwing it in reverse and backing his way around hikers and bikers.

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams speaks on Smuggler as Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland watches in the background.
Troy Hooper

The large rocks embedded in the steep, narrow road convinced the forest supervisor that his sleek sedan wasn't cut out for Smuggler, and with hikers giving him looks as dirty as the mountainside, Fitzwilliams elected to retreat the car back down the road, before handing the wheel to his wife and making the rest of the trip up the 2-mile road on foot, which is the customary way to climb Smuggler.

Sen. Mark Udall had an easier time.

Along with Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland, who recently recovered from a bad mountain biking accident, and other local dignitaries, the senator procured a ride up Smuggler Mountain in a sturdy four-wheel-drive truck, forcing huffing and puffing hikers to the side.

The motorized trip up Smuggler Mountain provided Sen. Udall the perfect backdrop to deliver a 2-minute speech about the importance of caring for our natural environment, the perils of a warming climate, and the jobs that can be created through “a clean and green new set of investments.” But in doing so, the senator and his entourage committed one of Aspen's cultural sins: driving up Smuggler.

Motorized vehicles are allowed on Smuggler Mountain Road. There are some residences along the way and at the top of the mountain that require their inhabitants to drive the road. Motorized dirt bikers also zip up and down Smuggler from time to time, though, like motorists, they often get the stink eye.

“I got the stink eye,” confirmed Fitzwilliams, who said he was unaware of Aspen's unofficial rules of Smuggler Mountain Road, which basically translates to: Don't drive up unless you absolutely must.

The Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers take a break to feast on chili, beer and politics Saturday.
Troy Hooper

“It should be marked more clearly,” noted the forest supervisor, who is still relatively new to the area, after transferring here from the natural beauty that is the Willamette National Forest in Oregon.

Atop the mountain, the dignitaries did their thing.

They shook hands with the hard-working members of the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, who are improving trails on Smuggler and elsewhere around the valley. Some of the volunteers also took motorized shuttles up the mountain, but only before and after a long day of physical labor.

“We face a lot of forest health issues today across Western America,” said former Aspen Mayor John Bennett, now executive director of For the Forest. “The bark beetle epidemic stretches from British Columbia to Guatemala at this point; catastrophic wildfires; sudden aspen decline; fir decline; we see a loss of 90 percent of pinion trees in some parts of New Mexico; a decline of large-diameter trees in various parts of the West; including Yosemite; a predicted loss by some scientists of up to one half of the old growth forests across the Western United States in the next few decades.”

John Bennett

Bennett is the head of a local nonprofit group called For the Forest, which is proactively battling bark beetles on Smuggler Mountain through select logging and the spraying of verbenone — an organic compound that, studies show, repels mountain pine beetles — and bringing attention to its cause.

“Although it's at a scale that won't fix the whole 3.5 million-acre problem the Forest Service is dealing with, it's one bite,” noted the White River National Forest's Fitzwilliams, “and I think more important than what is going on as far as the bugs and what's going on with the trees here, is what's going on with the attention that this project has brought to the beetle problem and the restoration needs of the future.”

The environmental crisis, added Fitzwilliams, presents opportunities to create “restoration economies.”

“We have a chance to actually create an economy around restoration. Putting people to work — good jobs, in the woods, doing work we need — seems like a future we all ought to work for,” he said.

Udall, who spoke last, praised the work of the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, the city of Aspen and Pitkin County for their collaborative efforts to improve the natural environment around them.

Sen. Mark Udall
Troy Hooper

“Our forests needs this kind of attention. Mother Nature bats last and we just want to keep the ball game going, right?” he said. “ … Those jobs are here, they’re in America, they can’t be outsourced — and I think it connects us to the land we are so fortunate to inhabit in the West.”

After the applause and handshakes subsided, the senator and the other speakers climbed back into their awaiting vehicles and drove back down Smuggler Mountain.

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