North Star Preserve was namesake for Polaris Missile |

North Star Preserve was namesake for Polaris Missile

Paul Andersen
Aspen Journalism

The North Star Nature Preserve was once a historic ranch that raised cows and grew hay. The preserve is actually three neighboring properties — the North Star Nature Preserve, the James H. Smith Open Space and a parcel owned by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies — totaling 309 acres.

Most of the preserve was carved from North Star Ranch, which James Smith acquired in 1949 from a notorious Aspen bootlegger. Smith, an aspiring rancher who served as undersecretary of the Navy Air, named the Polaris Missile System for his beloved North Star Ranch.

Staving Off Development

In the mid-1960s, the Aspen Area General Plan allowed construction of as many as 1,500 houses at North Star Ranch, plus some recreational and commercial development. This magnitude of development was rejected by Smith, and Aspen residents were alerted that the town’s eastern entrance risked losing its rural atmosphere.

In 1973, Smith submitted an application for a reduced 350 residences, which was denied by the Pitkin County commissioners, who the following year downzoned much of the county, including the eastern approach to Aspen.

North Star Ranch was rezoned to AF-1, which allowed development of as many as 36 units. This led to conversations between Smith and members of the Pitkin County Parks Association concerning the possibility of converting part of the ranch to open space. The result was the selection of a 175-acre parcel within the ranch and an appraisal of that parcel in 1977.

The county Planning Department took the lead in the acquisition process with the application of a 50-50 matching grant of $575,000 from the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, administered through the Colorado Division of Parks and Recreation for the Federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation.

When it was learned that these funds would not be available in 1977, The Nature Conservancy, then headed by Aspenite Jon Mulford, was contacted. Mulford renegotiated the purchase price to include a gift valued at $275,000 from three generations of the Smith family.

In November 1977, The Nature Conservancy took title to 175 acres of North Star Ranch, which it transferred in December 1978 to Pitkin County, which began managing the property as a nature preserve — the first of its kind in the county.

Legacy of Conservation

The original North Star Management Plan focused on nature and its continued protection: “The conservation imperative at North Star is to preserve a mosaic of high-quality native ecological communities that support a high level of biological diversity.”

That became policy when Sydney Macy, one of the preserve’s chief conservation advocates, and then Colorado Field Office director for The Nature Conservancy, wrote a letter to the Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission on July 18, 1984:

“The intent of the acquisition, which is in keeping with The Nature Conservancy’s objective of preserving natural areas, was that North Star Ranch be managed as a natural area for scientific and educational purposes while still encouraging and allowing some passive recreation.”

Then County Planner Bill Kane, in a letter to the Colorado Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, wrote, “It is our contention that this land, if acquired, would present the prospect of an elk refuge in perpetuity.”

Morgan Smith, son of James Smith and former director of Agriculture for Colorado, specified the purpose of the family donation of $275,000 that secured the preserve: “This donation … was intended to keep the land in open space and for the purposes of wildlife. We never would have made the donation if there had been discussion of commercial usages. In addition, it was always our hope that this donation might serve as an example to others who are interested in preserving land and protecting wildlife.”

While James Smith cursed willows as his ranching nemesis, willows are recognized today as a valued plant, of which North Star nurtures five distinct species.

North Star also supports a high level of biological diversity, with 17 species of small mammals and at least 107 species of birds — more than 60 of which are likely to breed at North Star. There are 13 medium to large mammal species, including elk, coyotes, black bears, bobcats, one reptile species and three species of amphibian, including the boreal toad, a potentially endangered species.

The preserve harbors 10 distinct vegetational communities: mixed conifer forest, aspen forest, cottonwood riparian, willow riparian, oak-serviceberry shrubland, dry meadow, mesic hayfields, wet meadow, emergent sedge wetland and open water.