P&Z endorses paraglider landings in nature area
Dick Jackson’s Aspen Paragliding has only one more hurdle to clear in a quest for permission to continue landing at the Northstar Nature Preserve east of Aspen.Despite opposition by county staff to such use, Pitkin County’s Planning and Zoning Commission voted this week to recommend that county commissioners grant the operation a permit when they address the issue in August.In a two-hour discussion Tuesday, supporters convinced the P&Z that paragliding is within the uses intended for the preserve, which was purchased by the Nature Conservancy and transferred to the county in 1978.Jackson’s business provides paragliding instruction and tandem flights for clients with experienced pilots. His flights have been taking off from Aspen Mountain and landing at Northstar for 12 years.The business has operated under license from the city of Aspen and under an agreement with Aspen Skiing Co. It has been regulated by the county only through the Aspen Mountain Master Plan.Jackson said his business is open all year long, but is essentially inactive during Aspen’s off-seasons. He refused to say how many flights he provides annually or daily, citing the potential for problems with public perception.The preserve, a 175-acre tract of open space just southeast of Aspen, is owned by the county and presently managed for a combination of recreational and preservation purposes. The portion between theRoaring Fork River and Aspen Mountain – 85 percent of the preserve – is off limits to human use. The land supports a variety of wildlife, including four “sensitive” bird species and the state-endangered boreal toad.The slice of land between Highway 82 and the river sees heavy recreational use by anglers, kayakers, paragliders, snowshoers and cross country skiers.The preserve is managed by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. ACES and the county have overseen activities on the property in accordance with a draft management plan that has been modified several times since the 1970s, but never formally adopted.Jonathan Lowsky, the county’s wildlife biologist, opposed grant-ing the permit. He argued that the Nature Conservancy’s mandate was that the preserve should receive only passive recreational use, such as walking and bird watching, and that other uses have negative impacts on wildlife in the area, including the great blue herons that nest there.”We’re not saying there should be no human use,” Lowsky said. But paragliding, he said, doesn’t fit with the mandate.Lowsky took his position after doing an extensive review of scientific papers concerning the impacts of paragliding on great blue heron rookeries and on ground-nesting birds, which are abundant in the preserve. He said objective scientific research is determining that the impacts are significant.”Sometimes people think I have an extreme view,” Lowsky said. “But its not my job to make the compromises.” He said his job is simply to present the facts; the elected officials must make the compromises.Jackson, however, in his presentation to the P&Z, claimed that great blue herons started nesting in the preserve only two or three years ago, despite paraglider landings nearby.ACES Director Tom Cardamone said he believes paraglider landings should be permitted, but monitored and regulated.The county’s position has been contradictory in the past, Cardamone said, allowing some uses for special events and prohibiting other uses. He said the discussion during Tuesday’s meeting went a little way toward reconciling the contradictions.Other active human uses, such as kayaking, fly fishing, snowshoeing and instruction in those sports, have been allowed – subject to regulation and monitoring. Hiking and bicycling have been aided in the preserve with the construction of a trail that was built along the highway through a wetland area.”With almost an acre of wetland converted to a trail,” Cardamone said, it’s hard to justify restricting a use like paragliding that has far less impact on the landscape.”
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