Bad behavior curbed, Aspen’s North Star Preserve moves on

The word is out and the bad behavior that plagued the North Star Nature Preserve just a couple years ago seems to be a thing of the past, sources said this week.

“There’s been a huge shift in how the area functions for the better,” said Lindsey Utter, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails planning and outreach manager. “(The bad behavior) has become almost a non-issue.”

Now, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails officials are looking to further refine management of one of Aspen’s true outdoor gems, including discouraging dogs, providing tips on what to do if visitors encounter a member of the preserve’s burgeoning moose population as well as refining the parking situation at the Stillwater take-out and, said Utter and Pryce Hadley, Open Space ranger supervisor.

“(North Star) is prime moose habitat,” Hadley said. “Moose do react aggressively to dogs, … so we’re really trying to get people to consider leaving dogs at home.”

Dogs, however, are not forbidden at North Star as long as they remain on a watercraft, he said. Dogs are only allowed off the water at the Stillwater Bridge take-out, Hadley said.

North Star Nature Preserve, located east of Aspen, is the only flat-water stretch of the Roaring Fork River. The 175-acre parcel is owned by taxpayers through the county’s Open Space program, though most of it is closed to the public to preserve wildlife habitat that includes a blue heron colony.

The public can float from the Wildwood put-in a few miles up Highway 82 toward Independence Pass, to Stillwater Bridge, but can only get out of the water at the designated beach area along the route.

Around the summer of 2015, the preserve’s popularity skyrocketed and began to attract an irresponsible, intoxicated and noisy crowd who left trash strewn along the banks and disrespected private property along the river. Perhaps most problematic at the time was the parking situation at Wildwood, where parking along the road blocked access for emergency vehicles and to Wildwood School.

That led Pitkin County to partner with the U.S. Forest Service — the put-in is on Forest Service property — and pay for a seasonal ranger to police the parking area and write tickets when necessary. That strategy has worked well, and a ranger will continue to be posted at Wildwood this summer, Hadley and Utter said.

Open Space officials began a public education program emphasizing that while it is fine to sip a cold beer or two on the river, it is not the place for loud, boisterous behavior. They also urged boaters to remain on the river because much of the land bordering the river is private property.

Finally, Open Space officials have tried to discourage the use of inner-tubes or other flotation devices that directly expose any part of the body to the cold river water, Hadley said. Hypothermia can and does occur even on warm days, he said, and thunderstorms also can quickly form, which means be prepared with a rain jacket.

Taken together, the efforts seem to have paid off, they said.

In fact, officials are finding that locals learned so well from the campaign, they now often educate visitors about appropriate behavior at North Star, Hadley said. The presence of naturalists from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies has helped improve the situation, they said.

“People take a lot of pride and ownership out there (now),” Utter said.

The moose population in the North Star area has been increasing in recent years, as evidenced by violent human-moose interactions this spring near the Highway 82 winter closure gate and near Difficult Campground, Hadley said. It’s now become necessary to educate people on what to do if they encounter a moose while on the river, Hadley and Utter said.

The best advice in that situation is don’t get out of the boat, stay as far away as possible and leave the area quickly, they said.

“It’s just the new reality,” Hadley said. “When we’re out there, we’re in their backyard.”

The last remaining issue is the parking situation at Stillwater, Utter said. Boaters often leave cars at the take-out, crowding the limited parking along Highway 82 and creating conflicts between pedestrians and traffic.

Open Space officials are working with Colorado Department of Transportation officials on a plan to fix the problem, Utter said.