Tuesday, Pitkin County Commissioners will hear an update on commercial paddleboarding and boating businesses that operate at North Star Nature Preserve, a popular open space property east of Aspen along the Roaring Fork River. This comes as Open Space and Trails staff work to balance recreation and protecting the sensitive nature preserve in an update to the area’s management plan. Aspen Journalism Environment Desk Editor Elizabeth Stewart-Severy has been following the county’s work at North Star and spoke with Aspen Public Radio’s Molly Dove.

What kinds of commercial operations are we talking about at North Star Nature Preserve?

There are 11 businesses that use the river for guided paddleboarding, canoeing or boating, and there’s also one commercial paragliding company that uses the property. The county limits the size of commercial groups to a total of 6 people, including any guides, so these are small groups. Anyone running commercial business on open space property needs to apply for a permit and staff is proposing some changes to that process.

What is Pitkin County changing in that process?

Mostly these focus on setting hard deadlines for businesses to complete their paperwork and pay the user fee, which is $1.25 per client. Lindsey Utter, planning and outreach manager for Open Space and Trails, said because the county has been pretty flexible in the past, some operators are abusing the system.

Open Space staff is now proposing firm deadlines; any business who misses the deadline wouldn’t be eligible for a permit. There are also new guidelines proposed for consequences of violating the permit rules: if a business has two citations, the permit will be revoked.

North Star is unique among open space properties because it is both a nature preserve and a very popular spot for recreation. Utter explained that commercial businesses should set the standard for good behavior at North Star.

“The commercial operators should always be the best users and the best example. They can be the biggest advocates for North Star,” Utter said.

North Star Nature Preserve is both a refuge for wildlife and a popular recreation spot. Pitkin County officials are working to find a balance that allows both to thrive. Credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

The county is now in the process of gathering public input for an update to North Star’s management plan. What are some of the issues at hand?

There has been tension for years around the balance of maintaining a nature preserve and hosting recreation. Many people enjoy paddleboarding or canoeing the river, and they float through land owned by the U.S. Forest Service, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and Pitkin County.

Since the last management plan was adopted in 2015, those groups have focused on enforcing noise limits, cleaning up trash, and improving safety and parking at the Wildwood put-in. County staff and frequent users of the area say those efforts have been effective, and now the focus is shifting to the take-out.

There are safety concerns about the area along Hwy. 82 where most boaters or paddleboarders get out of the river.

In 2019, there was an average of 59 river users a day at North Star, and the parking at the take-out at Stillwater Bridge is along a narrow stretch of Highway 82, where there are blind corners, limited parking and heavy traffic.

The county has a survey out now gathering input about how people are accessing and using the open space and what they like and would like to see changed.

U.S. Forest Service protection officer Kelly Wood talks with paddle boarders at the Wildwood put-in at North Star Nature Preserve in 2016. Pitkin County teamed up with the Forest Service and naturalists with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies to tame crowds at the put-in; now their focus shifts to the take-out. Credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy

Why is this commercial permitting change happening ahead of the rest of the management plan update?

The final management plan is set to be adopted in May, and the county will need to start issuing these permits ahead of that.

Editor’s Note: This story was produced in collaboration with Aspen Public Radio. A version aired on Morning Edition on Dec. 10. 

Elizabeth Stewart-Severy is a freelance journalist based in Snowmass Village. She grew up in Aspen and has worked as an editor at Aspen Journalism, reporter at Aspen Public Radio and an English and journalism...