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County to seek compromise at North Star

Jeremy Heiman

After a marathon public hearing Thursday, Pitkin County is no closer to having a management plan in place for the North Star Nature Preserve.

Having listened to solid arguments both for and against continuing to allow present recreational uses on the property, the Board of County Commissioners postponed a vote on a master plan for the site, located east of Aspen. The board agreed to create a working group to hammer out compromises acceptable to both sides.

An advertised Feb. 9 public hearing date may be used for discussion of the issue, said County Manager Suzanne Konchan, but the first vote will likely be continued beyond that date, because the working group’s conclusions are not expected by then.

The commissioners were scheduled to take a first vote yesterday on a North Star management plan drafted by Jonathan Lowsky, Pitkin County’s wildlife biologist. The vote was expected after the commissioners fielded comments from the public on 10 unresolved issues in the plan.

The issues are of major importance. They include whether to permit landings by paragliders and hang gliders, whether to allow commercial paraglider and kayak schools to continue operation on the preserve, whether to place viewing stands on the preserve, whether to continue a current program of mosquito control, whether to allow fishing and whether to use a motorized vehicle to pack trails for cross-country skiing.

More than 40 people addressed the commissioners. Some pleaded for a management plan which would restore or maintain the biological integrity of the preserve and prevent the disturbance of its wildlife. Others pleaded for the retention of the various recreational activities now permitted on the east side of the preserve. All were in agreement, however, that the preserve is an unparalleled community asset and that the west side, away from Highway 82, should remain essentially untouched.

Some progress has been made toward a workable plan. The draft under discussion is the fifth produced by Lowsky. In the new draft, a tentative plan to move the paraglider landing site to the extreme southeast corner of the property was scrapped as impractical. Lowsky also changed his recommendations to continue to allow fly-fishing on the east side of the Roaring Fork.

But the lines are still clearly drawn between the two sides. Dick Jackson, owner and operator of Aspen Paragliding, questioned the validity of wildlife studies done at North Star, accusing the researchers of bias.

“We need objective studies,” Jackson said. He claimed that seasonal closures, called for by biologists to protect ground-nesting birds, are based on perceived impacts of continuous use rather than real impacts.

Chuck Vidal warned against incrementalism – the growth of use from present levels to levels at which impacts cannot be controlled. Vidal said that a herd of 200 elk which frequented the land in 1977 has dwindled to a dozen or so.

Kirk Baker, owner of Aspen Kayak School, who teaches beginners in North Star’s quiet waters, said he was in the Pitkin County Courthouse 22 years ago, when rancher Jimmy Smith signed the North Star property over to The Nature Conservancy. He recalled that Smith shook his hand after the signing and said, “I guess you’ll always have a place to kayak, now.”

Sandra Smith, Jimmy Smith’s daughter, however, interpreted her father’s wishes differently. “Since it was given as a preserve, I do believe it should be a preserve,” she said.

Smith said she didn’t believe recreation should be prohibited, but that commercial recreation is not appropriate.

Roger Hollowell, a former employee of Jimmy Smith, said he thinks the commissioners, in determining how to manage the preserve, need to respect the donor’s intention. He noted that land deeded as open space is now covered by the Maroon Creek golf course.

Howie Mallory questioned mosquito control procedure now carried out at North Star, suggesting it probably has a bigger impact on wildlife populations than recreation on the preserve. Pitkin County uses a biological larvaecide in spring and summer, which eliminates hordes of adult mosquitoes and other insects, and doesn’t put toxins into the environment.

“If you want more birds, you’ve got to have more bugs. If you want to eliminate part of the food chain, you’re going to have a major impact,” he said.

Commissioner Mick Ireland lamented that the public hearing process, confrontational as it is, does not amount to dialog, and doesn’t lend itself to compromise.

Commissioner Leslie Lamont seconded some of Ireland’s remarks, suggesting the group step back from the process and find a way to compromise on the final divisive issues. The plan to create a mediated working group quickly developed in the ensuing discussion.


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