A Federal Government Shutdown Could Affect Fall Leaf Peeping Season at the Maroon Bells

Avant Garde Aspen

As the fall foliage in the Aspen area approaches its peak, a potential government shutdown at the federal level threatens to complicate matters at the beloved Maroon Bells Scenic Area.
 
This autumn, the leaves are changing later than usual, promising a robust October for tourism. The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority has planned daily bus services to Maroon Lake until October 22.
 
Ken Murphy, managing partner of H2O Ventures, which handles reservations for private vehicle and bus access to the Maroon Bells Scenic Area, noted, "Reservations are incredibly strong just because fall colors are later."
 
However, the political landscape in Washington, D.C., looms as a potential spoiler for Aspen's leaf-peeping season. Certain far-right members of the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives are threatening a government shutdown starting October 1 if substantial spending cuts aren't approved. According to a report from Reuters, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy intends to delay a stopgap spending bill to consider the priorities of the far-right faction when Congress reconvenes from a break.
 
In the event of a government shutdown, non-essential government employees would be furloughed until the situation is resolved. A 35-day shutdown occurred in December 2018 and January 2019, with limited impact on Forest Service public services in the Roaring Fork Valley due to the time of year. However, a 16-day shutdown in the fall of 2013 had a significant impact on the Maroon Bells area.
 
During the 2013 shutdown, the Forest Service closed the bathrooms, interpretative center, and parking lots around Maroon Lake. Forest rangers were absent, leading to unmonitored visitor activities. Initially, Maroon Creek Road was barricaded between T-Lazy 7 and the Forest Service's welcome center. However, since it's a Pitkin County road, the county commissioners authorized the opening of the road to the end of the county's jurisdiction just below the Maroon Lake parking lots.
 
Brian Pettet, county public works director, who held the position in 2013 as well, recalled, "People drove, then parked along the county road and walked (to Maroon Lake and beyond) from there." He anticipates informing the county commissioners this week that they may need to make a decision again on the road's status.
 
Pettet doesn't foresee the county commissioners closing the road, considering it one of the busiest times for visitors.
 
The impact of a closure on RFTA shuttles is uncertain. In 2013, the Forest Service closed the bus turnaround area at the end of Maroon Creek Road, leading RFTA to suspend its services due to safety concerns. If the gate remains open during a shutdown, RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship stated that they might continue service unless there are objections.
 
Shuttle seats are already reserved for weekends through October 22, and while no contingency plan is in place, Blankenship acknowledges that refunds would be considered if RFTA can't provide service.
 
As of now, H2O Ventures is operating as usual, with shuttle seats available on weekdays. This flexibility has allowed visitors to take advantage of the late peak season.
 
The reservation system, which didn't exist in 2013, now provides a means to alert visitors in advance of any restrictions on shuttle and parking lot access.
 
Nonetheless, a federal shutdown would be a substantial setback for the upper valley's economy. Ken Murphy emphasized, "It's a huge economic driver for our community."
 
Additionally, a free-for-all for vehicles on the road would heighten safety risks for cyclists on this popular route.
 
The Forest Service has remained silent on its plans for managing the Maroon Bells Scenic Area this year in the event of a federal closure. Aspen Sopris District Ranger Kevin Warner stated, "We are not speculating on a shutdown," directing inquiries to the agency's communication office in Washington, D.C., which did not respond to an email inquiry.
 
In 2013, the Forest Service's concessionaire also closed some campgrounds outside of Maroon Creek Valley earlier than planned, resulting in lost fee collections estimated between $20,000 and $30,000 for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.
 
Pitkin County officials can only wait and see how the congressional stalemate unfolds before deciding on a course of action. Pettet expressed, "It's a waste of time to speculate."

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