Citizens Groups Leans In for Answers, Action
By Kathy Bedell, © Leadville Today
Leave it to the Friends of Twin Lakes (FoTL) to get to the bottom of the Leadville Ranger District situation during one of their regular meetings last Saturday, where two United States Forest Service representatives were invited guests.
While rumors have been swirling since the early-July Open House held at the Leadville district office concerning the future of one of Colorado’s oldest Ranger Districts, it was a group of civic-minded volunteers and residents of southern Lake County that finally got some solid answers from Salida Ranger Jim Pitts. During the latest leadership transition at the Leadville office, Pitts has been charged with managing both the Salida and Leadville Districts after Leadville’s latest Ranger took to other trails, some months ago now.
Last Saturday’s lively exchange held in the historic Twin lakes schoolhouse, was followed by a formal statement issued by the US Forest Service (USFS) released to media outlets on Wednesday regarding the Leadville Ranger District. And while there’s little doubt that the local community will welcome the new “acting” Ranger who will be appointed by the new “acting” Forest and Grassland Supervisor, the discussion that took place at the Twin Lakes historic schoolhouse on Sept. 22 revealed a few more details about the transition, and perhaps most importantly, some clues as to where things could eventually be headed for the Forest Service
Leadville Today was there to record that public meeting after more formal inquiries to the agency went unanswered. After all, the July meeting presented a lot of questions. Would the Leadville and Salida Ranger Districts be combined? Would the local office close? What about the lease on the Leadville building at Highway 24 S and McWethy – would it be renewed – it expires the end of this month? How will this latest management transition affect the continuity of projects and events already in the works, particularly those with committed grant funds. How will groups, organizations and businesses be interacting with the Forest Service in the future? It was clear, that this time it was about more than just another leadership transition in the Leadville office.
In fact, right before the July Open House meeting, Leadville Today was the only media outlet that took advantage of the opportunity to sit down with Salida Ranger Jim Pitts and then-Forest and Grassland Supervisor Erin Connelly to discuss the future of Leadville’s Ranger. To emphasize the fluidity of the situation, Connelly has since moved on from that position and has been replaced by Carolyn Upton as indicated in the press release issued this week, although no formal announcement was ever made regarding that personnel change. The on-the-record interview with Connelly and Pitts was only 45 days ago and the details have changed since then.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that the old USFS management model is cracking and most at risk for falling through the crevices are not only the FoTL preservation projects, but possibly business agreements that have been in place for decades. But perhaps that is just the nature of operating one of the biggest land management companies, in the world, really. Priorities shift, directives from Washington D.C. set new courses of action. In fact, during his presentation on Saturday, Pitts explained how wildfires are shifting the budget and boot-on-the-grounds management approach.
“Our summer field season has become our summer fire season and folks are gone,” explained Pitts regarding the shortage of staff and resources.
One resource Pitts was able to offer came from his colleague Catherine (Cat) Kamke a USFS Zone Archaeologist for the Leadville, Salida, and San Carlos Ranger Districts, Pike-San Isabel National Forests who was also at Saturday’s meeting. She has not only assembled a Heritage Management Plan guidebook, but will also provide some continuity regarding these types of projects, including the ones at Twin Lakes, with the new Leadville Ranger. Those details are outlined more fully in the video posted below.
But the Friends of Twin Lakes have grown tired of nearly three years of excuses and while they appreciated Kamke’s expertise and offer to help, she still does not have any authority to give the green-light on their projects. The FoTL may have been emphatic to the Ranger’s plight, however their collective determination to see their hard work come to fruition won out, and they continued to put the pressure on, to get some real answers.
For those unfamiliar with the Friends of Twin Lakes, as one resident put it: “I challenge you to find a group of people more dedicated to making this become the place we want it to be.” And the rubber has certainly been meeting the road down along Highway 82 south of Leadville, in the small village that also acts as the gateway to Independence Pass, and glitzy Aspen beyond. In fact, if you’ve ever stopped in the Twin Lakes Visitor Center you have the Friends to thank for that first-class tourist stop.
While the building is owned by the Forest Service, the restoration and preservation efforts can be attributed to this growing group of (mostly retired) Friends who are not only well-appointed, but also well-educated, and with enough experience to not be pushed around by “some guy in a Smokey-The-Bear hat.” The FoTL held Ranger Pitts feet to the proverbial campfire last Saturday, lamenting the trail of broken promises and lack of follow-through in recent years as the local Rangers have been re-assigned, replaced and now, reported to be temporarily seated for four-months.
To that end, it’s good to know that Ranger Pitts can handle a little soot. He was willing to go on the record and state that the responsibility of a positive transition for Leadville will rest on his shoulders. There was no spin, no passing of the buck, he owned it: “Ultimately the continuity to that rests on my shoulders,” Pitts admitted.
But then, the other hiking boot dropped, as he added “Even if, I’m the last Ranger standing.”
Now while that may sound like a line from a spaghetti western novel, the truth of the matter is Pitts is the last Ranger standing for this district of the Pike and San Isabel National Forests. Unfortunately, his statement only seemed to re-enforce a management break-down in more woods than just Lake County’s.
To understand those metrics, readers should pull back the proverbial lens a bit. The Leadville, Salida, and San Carlos (think Canon City) Ranger Districts all make up one of eight districts under the Pike-San Isabel National Forests umbrella. In the past year, not only did Leadville take another hit, but a similar situation was happening in Canon City as the San Carlos Ranger retired after 18 years. Add to that the exit of Supervisor Connelly in the past 30 days and it’s no wonder that the Friends’ frustration regarding management continuity has reached a boiling point.
“None of that was followed up on,” reported Kelly Sweeny, president of the FoTL referring to plans submitted to the last leader. “And your boots-on-the-ground folks do not have the authority to say ‘yes’.”
The historic Clarion Hotel in Twin Lakes is owned by the Forest Service and has fallen into terrible disrepair. The Friends of Twin Lakes are trying to restore the building as part of their Heritage Park and waiting for the USFS to sign off on their plan, now years in the making. Photo: Leadville TodayIn fact, if there was one thing that everyone agreed on it was that Leadville has a committed and resourceful local crew. Those are Jeni Windorski, Steve Sunday, Loretta McEllhiney and others whose professionalism on the trails is only outshined by their community commitment and involvement. It just doesn’t happen that way anymore, so that’s a tally in the win column for Leadville.
But a solid Leadville crew doesn’t stop the old Clarion Hotel from falling down in disrepair due to poor stewardship by its owner, the US Forest Service. But whether the FoTL can get the USFS to sign off on the Clarion Hotel restoration project which is ready to go with a host of volunteers and secured funding is yet to be seen. Ranger Pitts committed to an October meeting with the group; the new month starts Monday and according to Wednesday’s press release a new Leadville Ranger will not even be seated until sometime in October.
It’s important to note that last Saturday’s FoTL meeting provided more than just answers to their projects. Pitts also announced that there are some USFS permit applications that are “NOT moving forward.” Do you know what they are or how these changes could affect you ability to do business in the woods? Did you know that the 2-year planning process has now become a 3-year planning process? Be sure to check out the first video in this post for those answers!
It’s time to sit up and start paying attention because if you think that it’s going to be business as usual with the USFS, you could be in for a big surprise, as the ground work for what could be systemic changes in this federal agency slowly started to appear at the Twin Lakes schoolhouse last Saturday . . . thanks to the Friends of Twin Lakes!
“Friends” Request Answers from USFS Ranger Pitts
The following video is also from last Saturday’s meeting between the Friends of Twin Lakes and Salida Ranger Jim Pitts. These segments discuss more details and conversation regarding the specific of their projects. The exchange offers insight as to how the process and communication is going with the USFS and local entities. The Friends’ dedication and commitment is impressive and demonstrates their value as an anchor in southern Lake County. Please show your support of them by checking out their website, connect on their Facebook Page, or drop them an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Journalist Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, LLC, a media company located in Leadville, Colorado which publishes LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com.