Pitkin County commissioners get first gaze of North Star plan
A flourishing nature preserve on the outskirts of Aspen is tempered by a reduction in water and change in vegetation, ecologists and wildlife experts told Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday.
An updated management plan for the 175-acre North Star Nature Preserve and the adjoining 70-acre-plus James H. Smith Open Space — located along the Roaring Fork River — was introduced to commissioners as part of a work session with the Open Space and Trails Board. The plan, in its draft form, also will get review from the city of Aspen, a partner in the project, and the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Stream Board. A six-week public comment period opens April 27.
The area, located off Highway 82 east of Aspen, is becoming increasingly popular with recreational users. Kayakers, rafters and paddleboarders enjoy some of the river’s calmest waters. Walkers, runners, hikers, cross-country skiers and bikers use the trail that ends at Difficult. And paragliders use a public portion of the preserve as a landing spot. Fishing is prohibited except by boat.
“It’s a huge nature preserve,” Gary Tennenbaum, assistant director of Open Space and Trails, told the commissioners and the open space board. “It’s beautiful wetlands, really pretty habitat, so overall it’s great.”
But the original management plan, created in 2000, needs to be updated, he said. “Overall, it’s great. The management plan is working. We just want to slowly tweak it and add some nuances to it.”
Human impacts to the river as well as the straightening of the river have resulted in less water, drying wetlands and such vegetational changes as an uptick in noxious weeds.
“The aspens are suffering with what’s known as rapid die-off,” said Randy Mandel, a senior restoration ecologist with Lakewood-based Golder Associates, which worked on the draft of the management plan. “We’re also seeing a change in the vegetation.”
Mandel said the loss of aspens and other shifts at the preserve would be addressed by the management plan, which would include a study into reconnecting the floodplain to the existing river channel, according to a county memo.
“This is an attempt to reverse the drying of the wetlands from years of less water accessing the floodplain, due mainly to the straightening of the river and the transmountain diversion,” the memo says. “This action item is a novel idea that will take further exploring through a specific contract to look at all potential ideas and modeling before committing to a specific project.”
Despite the declining water supply, the area is thriving with wildlife, said Jonathan Lowsky, principal wildlife ecologist for Basalt-based Colorado Wildlife Science LLC.
“The net result is all of the species that we expect to be out there are there,” he said. “Many of them, most of them, are flourishing, with the lone exception being the great blue heron.”
One idea to boost the heron population is to create a “quiet zone” for the colony using signs and educational outreach to river users. The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies would partner with the effort.
Black bears, mule deer, weasels, 79 species of birds and other wildlife populate the area, Lowsky said.
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