The politics of the valley are somewhat complex, arising principally from the fact that the valley is split awkwardly among four different counties: Pitkin (Aspen), Eagle County (Basalt), Garfield County (Glenwood Springs, Carbondale), and Gunnison County. The fragmented structure is in contrast to the nearby Eagle Valley, which lies entirely within Eagle County. The fragmented governmental structure has made the adoption of a comprehensive land-use and growth policy more difficult, especially in regard to Aspen, which has struggled between the extremes of allowing unbridled growth leading to sprawl and restricting growth altogether. The [Roaring Fork Watershed Collaborative is working to address regional issues across county lines.
The main economic engine of the valley is the Aspen/Snowmass recreational skiing complex which directly or indirectly drives the related tourism, hospitality, retail, construction, real estate, professional service and property maintenance industries. Although skiing forms the foundation of the economy, other activities increasingly contribute to visitor numbers. Non-winter recreational and cultural activities such as fly fishing on the Fryingpan and whitewater rafting on the Roaring Fork, Aspen Institute and Rocky Mountain Institute conferences, the Aspen Music Festival, and numerous other cultural events attract visitors year-round. Although the valley floor is largely privately owned, most of the surrounding highlands are within the White River National Forest and are another major source of recreation and tourism. Agriculture, principally livestock raising, plays a very moderate and declining role in the valley's economy. Potato cultivation has historically been important in the lower valley, but is virtually nonexistent at present.
The valley has been one of the most rapidly growing areas of Colorado in recent years, not only in the vicinity of Aspen, but notably in the lower end of the valley below Basalt. The communities of Basalt and Carbondale have served as bedroom communities for day workers in Aspen, where high property values have increasingly strained the ability of low- and middle-income workers afford the cost of living. State Highway 82 serves as the principal transportation artery of the valley. Despite the rural character of much of the valley and the absence of large cities, the valley is served by an extensive public transportation system called the Roaring Fork Transit Authority, which is a popular commuting route between Aspen and its bedroom communities for day workers.