Gliders look to preserve North Star landing site
Controversy over the landing by paragliders in the North Star Nature Preserve will land in the laps of Pitkin County commissioners today.
Dick Jackson, the owner of Aspen Paragliding, has applied to the county for a permit to continue using a corner of the preserve as the landing site for his morning flights. Jackson’s business provides paragliding instruction and tandem flights that pair clients with experienced pilots.
Jackson said his commercial flights have been taking off from Aspen Mountain and landing at North Star since 1990, and recreational flights have landed at North Star for 13 years. Until now, Jackson’s business has operated under license from the city of Aspen, which allows landings at the city’s Marolt Park west of town, and under an agreement with the Aspen Skiing Co. In general, Jackson said, morning flights land at North Star and afternoon flights land at the Marolt open space west of town.
County planner Tamara Pregl said the special-use permit Jackson is being asked to apply for is the first of its kind. She said commissioners may make a decision on the application today, but they could also table the issue.
Pregl has recommended that the county grant Jackson a permit to carry on his paragliding business, but deny the company permission to land at North Star, as paraglider landings are inappropriate in a wildlife preserve.
The issue has stirred up a groundswell of community opposition to Jackson’s use of North Star, along with a letter-writing campaign by Aspenites who oppose granting the permit. They have sent letters to the commissioners and to local newspapers, expressing their displeasure with the commercial use of North Star.
Some have organized as Friends of North Star Nature Preserve, formed in June, after the county Planning and Zoning Commission voted to recommend that commissioners grant the permit. The group’s intent, after four meetings, is to convince the county to deny the permit, or at least to put off a decision.
“We’re hoping the county will at least table the issue until there is a management plan [for North Star] in effect,” said Heather Hopton, a founding member of the group. Completion of a management plan for the preserve, being drafted by county wildlife biologist Jonathan Lowsky, is expected this fall.
Hopton said her group is hoping to see a management plan adopted and to see a conservation easement placed on the preserve, worded to put wildlife preservation first, and to allow only those human uses that are compatible with wildlife habitat. The preserve is now zoned AFR-10, Agricultural/Forestry/Residential, which provides little protection from increasing recreational use.
It’s not paragliding in particular that Hopton said she objects to on the preserve, but the general park-like atmosphere that has developed around the landing area, which she said draws spectators. Hopton said dogs brought by people using the trail alongside the preserve are also a threat.
Jackson, on the other hand, believes the preserve is really in good shape. “There’s no measurable evidence that we’ve had any effect on it at all,” he said.
He said those who contend the paraglider landings have increased substantially over the years are incorrect.
“Paragliding is not really on the kind of growth plan that is flipping out people around town,” Jackson said.
The proposed permit sets a limit of 14 landings per day, Jackson said, but weather is really the limiting factor. He said so far this year, his pilots have flown on 91 of 211 days, and have not reached an average of 14 total flights per day in any month.
Jackson said the preserve was purchased with the idea that certain non-impactive activities would be acceptable, and his operation fits that general category. “I’m not convinced there’s a real problem,” he said. “I think it’s a perceived problem.”
North Star is composed of 175 acres of river bottom land, mostly meadows and wetlands, east of Aspen. In 1977, rancher Jimmy Smith, who ran cattle on the land for 20 years, sold it to The Nature Conservancy, a national land preservation organization funded by donations.
It was Smith’s intent that the property be preserved for the benefit of wildlife, especially the large herd of elk that uses the area in winter. More than 100 species of birds have been identified on the preserve, including migratory and resident species.
The conservancy conveyed the preserve to Pitkin County in 1978 and management of the property was turned over to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies in 1984. A management plan for the preserve has never been adopted, although more than one such plan has been proposed.
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