Summertime in Aspen provides some of the best opportunities to enjoy the outdoors when the weather is warm and dry. Even the lower temperatures in August hasn’t stopped the public from accessing the countless local hiking and biking opportunities, including the more than 17,000 acres of open space preserved by the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program.
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Ranger John Armstrong keeps a close eye on the open space areas in the county, with a commitment to keep those areas safe, clean and accessible for the public.
Armstrong spoke with The Aspen Times about some of the open space issues he’s been dealing with. The following questions were part of that conversation.
Aspen Times: What has been the paramount issue you’ve been dealing with this summer that you feel needs more public awareness?
John Armstrong: It’s important to note the great amount of pressure the open space areas around Aspen are under for special events. Some are benevolent fundraising events, and others are commercial operations. Today (Aug. 23) was Aspen Strong, and we’ve already had the Ragnar Relays, the Buddy run, the Komen, the Aspen Valley Marathon. ... Those are a few that come to mind, and there are more. Safety is a major concern, as is resource protection. One of our greatest resources is the quality of life in this area and the experiences people have and expect when they access the open spaces. If we’re allowing 4,000 more people to access those areas on a peak weekend in the summer, we have to monitor that and protect that quality of experience. One of my commitments is, with these special events that come through, I want to make sure that they pay their own way and it doesn’t cost the taxpayers money for them to put on their events.
AT: Is the public treating the open space areas with respect this summer?
Armstrong: For the most part, I think people appreciate the open-space areas and have done a good job respecting the land. We’ve been getting rave reviews on the trail system on Sky Mountain Park. That’s gratifying, as open space has worked hard to develop that area in a sensitive way.
AT: What are some of the other issues you’ve seen this year that the public might not be as aware of?
Armstrong: The homeless issue has taken a significant amount of our time. We have squatters that attempt to camp and live in the city and county open space areas. We have to spend a certain amount of energy patrolling our areas for squatter camps. We realize in society that these people have had some challenges and try to deal with them sensitively, but we cannot allow degradation of the resources. I really feel that people not only need to be safe on open space areas — they need to feel safe, as well. We have a squatter problem near the intersection of Brush Creek and Highway 82. We have a trail that goes under the roads there, and we need to make sure people feel safe in that area. Fire is always a concern, as is litter and waste and the associated problems that go along with those issues.
AT: The bears are making their presence known throughout the valley this summer. Have there been any bear problems on the open space areas?
Armstrong: No, it’s been great. We’re pleased with our bears. They’re wild and have been staying up in the mountains for the most part. The amount of bear signs we’ve seen this summer on Smuggler Mountain is probably greater than ever. We’ve seen some bears on our trails, but we’ve been very lucky and not had any problems.
AT: Has there been any particular critter you’ve had to deal with or remains a bigger concern in the open space areas?
Armstrong: I’d say cats. I don’t live in fear of lions, but we have a healthy lion population around here. They are smart cats that know how to remain undetected. In the late fall through the winter and into early spring, the cats follow their food source, so when the elk and deer come down to lower elevations, the cats will follow. It goes without saying that people need to keep their pets safe from the cats, and that means keeping their pets on leash. We have a million reasons why we mandate that. Coyotes have taken pets, and a lion is going to be an opportunist and will take a pet. Dogs can also be predators and need to be kept away from the elk, especially in the winter when the elk are burning off stored calories. Dogs off leash have a bigger sphere of influence, as they tend to mark a large area with their urine that can keep wild animals away from those areas.
AT: The weather has been cool and wet for much of August. Does this type of weather pattern lead to any circumstances in nature that people should be aware of?
Armstrong: I’ve been living in this area for more than 40 years and have always paid close attention to the weather patterns. I think a wet August means absolutely nothing. We’ve seen summers like this, and this has been a cool one, but I can remember some that were downright cold. I love this type of weather. We’ve all seen when the water shuts off like a faucet, so I think we should enjoy the wet while we can.
AT: I know the open space department has done a lot of public outreach on keeping Smuggler Mountain clean and dogs kept under control while hiking. Have you seen any results from the outreach?
Armstrong: We’re pleased with the compliance we’re getting. We feel it’s a lot cleaner than it used to be and people are generally keeping their dogs under control. We still have too many people leaving poop bags along the trail, which is kind of surprising. We put three trash cans along the first half-mile of the hike since dogs tend to do their business once they start becoming active. I know people that would never drop a candy wrapper on the ground, but they leave dog poop along the trail, and I just don’t understand that. There are a lot of people accessing Smuggler these days, and most all of them are doing a great job keeping the trails clean.
AT: How about the North Star Nature Preserve? I know there was some concern about too many people accessing the river, and there was some research going on concerning the wildlife in the preserve. Has overuse been an issue, and has the wildlife been affected?
Armstrong: The wildlife seems to be doing great. We’re seeing very healthy bird numbers. We were fearful with the increased river use that people would be getting off the water at random locations along the river. That’s something we really don’t want because we have so many nesting birds and the like in those areas. People seem to be respecting the fact that we have three gates for access and egress on North Star. We’re not getting the trail braiding or multiple trails throughout the preserve that we feared. The beach area gets a ton of use. I can really empathize with the people that have lived here for decades and remember the really quiet, tranquil North Star beach, but it’s not that way anymore. What we’re seeing is a record amount of people enjoying the beach area, and that’s what open space is for. It’s the people’s property. Not everyone agrees with all the regulations, but it’s our job to manage it the best we can with balance.
AT: It sounds like all the public outreach to be better stewards of our open space areas is working. Do you agree?
Armstrong: I think for the most part, yes, the message is getting out there and people are on board. We don’t think it’s just an open space ethic to be better stewards; we think it’s the people’s ethic. I believe this is what the people of Aspen want. They want clean, healthy, safe environments in which to recreate. We’re doing what we can to make everyone’s experience in our open space areas a great one.