In the future, permits could be required to float North Star |

In the future, permits could be required to float North Star

Kurt Kalinna prepares to paddle up the Northstar Nature Preserve in Aspen on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Floating the North Star Nature Preserve likely will require a permit within the next few years and might involve a shuttle ride from downtown Aspen.

That was the word Wednesday from Pitkin County commissioners, who approved an updated management plan for the popular area east of Aspen that so far won’t yet require a permit. The public will be allowed to comment on the plan June 24, when it is scheduled to be officially adopted.

“Some sort of registration system for private boaters, to me, is important,” Board Chairman Steve Child said Wednesday.

Other changes include re-jiggered parking spaces along the North Star float route — none are allowed at the Stillwater takeout — installation of a bathroom at the Wildwood put-in and making most of the float route a “quiet zone,” according to the plan.

But having to apply for a permit to float North Star would be the biggest change proposed, though it won’t happen anytime soon. That’s because in order for a permit system to work properly, Pitkin County must be able to take over ownership of the Wildwood put-in, said Lindsey Utter, outreach and planning manager for the county’s Open Space and Trails program.

The U.S. Forest Service currently owns the put-in and is not interested in setting up a North Star permit system because it has other priorities, she said. That means the best course of action is to pursue a land exchange with the Forest Service, which can take up to a decade, according to Utter and the updated management plan.

“We need to start working on it now,” Utter said, adding that the county has no capacity of control boaters without a permit system.

Commissioner Patti Clapper said she thought a land exchange could be approved administratively and wouldn’t require an act of Congress. In that case, it might come about in three years or so, she said.

Utter and commissioners also talked about a takeout permit system for North Star, which could work because the Open Space program controls the Stillwater takeout. However, Clapper worried that would simply force non-permitted boaters to take out below the Stillwater pedestrian bridge. Commissioner Greg Poschman said taking out below the bridge “is a pain in the butt.” Three Aspen visitors who floated past it Saturday received minor injuries when they rolled over a small dam not far from the bridge, and into boulders and churning whitewater.

In the end, commissioners asked Open Space staff to try to come up with a viable takeout permit system.

Open Space officials also have proposed a paid parking system for the limited number of spaces, though nothing concrete has yet been offered.

Still, parking at North Star is a huge issue.

Officially, there are 35 parking spaces up and down the approximately 2-mile section of Highway 82 the route parallels. However, during the summer peak season, the parking areas along the route can see as many as 91 cars, according to the management plan.

“Honestly, people find any (parking) space along 82,” said Gary Tennenbaum, Open Space and Trails program director.

That includes a maximum of 30 to 40 cars at the takeout, 10 cars at the North Lot, 14 cars at the beach access, up to 13 at South Gate and up to 14 at the Wildwood put-in.

The new parking plan will accommodate up to 92 cars, though none will be allowed to park along Highway 82 at the Stillwater takeout. Those spaces include a new parking area the Colorado Department of Transportation has identified about 0.15 mile up from the takeout that will be able to accommodate 10 cars, the plan states. In addition, the North Lot can handle up to 30 cars, the beach up to 14, Southgate up to 24 cars and possibly more, with up to 14 spaces at the put-in, according to the management plan.

Commissioners, however, balked at 92 parking spaces for North Star.

Clapper thought 30 spaces at the North Lot was too many, while both Poschman and Commissioner George Newman, who called for the number to be “substantially reduced,” said 92 spots at North Star is too many. “That doesn’t seem right for North Star,” Poschman said.

Clapper also wanted Open Space staff to come up with a plan to combat parking displacement along the route.

Utter said the plan would reflect those sentiments, and call for parking to land somewhere in the middle of the estimates of a minimum of 58 spaces and maximum of 92.

Commissioners supported placing a portable bathroom at the Wildwood put-in, which has been approved by the Forest Service. The bathroom would likely be installed under a covered shelter, similar to one proposed at Penny Hot Springs near Carbondale.

Finally, a quiet zone will be established along the North Star route. Previously, the quiet zone was only surrounding the heron habitat.

Wildlife at North Star have not been impacted by the boating crowds because most of the preserve is off limits to people, Utter said. Still, the new plan adds further protections for beaver dams and elk migration.


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