`We should have left it alone’ | AspenTimes.com

`We should have left it alone’

Allyn Harvey

Months of contentious hearings over what to do with the North Star Nature Preserve ended yesterday with a split vote and sharp words between two county commissioners.

The new plan for the 175-acre preserve bans several historical uses, including picnicking and most fishing, and sets sharp limits on the times of day and months of the year that people are allowed to use the property for anything.

Some commercial and recreational uses will still be allowed, including kayaking and paragliding. Fishing is still allowed as long as the fishermen are floating through on a raft or canoe and do not step on the river bottom. Cross country ski trails will still be cut and maintained through the winter.

All public uses are banned on the property from 6 p.m. until 8 a.m.

The differences of opinion between the county commissioners were apparent throughout the last two days of hearings, with many of the votes on individual issues like the overnight ban splitting 3-2 or 4-1, and sometimes only after several motions on a particular point had failed.

The commissioners even split over what to name the property. Patti Clapper proposed “The North Star,” but Dorothea Farris convinced Shellie Roy Harper and Leslie Lamont to join her in naming it “North Star Nature Preserve.”

The property has been under county ownership and without any management plan since 1978. A year before, rancher Jimmy Smith sold the land to the Nature Conservancy, which conveyed it to the county.

Several vocal user groups popped onto the scene last year when the county began looking closely at writing a plan to limit uses. The meetings became emotional, as kayak, paragliding and fishing guides jockeyed to keep their use of the preserve intact. The commissioners responded by setting up a task force to come back with recommendations.

The plan that emerged from those meetings permits many uses that have started up since Smith sold the ranch. And for the most part, the commissioners bought off on the idea.

Yesterday, for instance, they agreed that as many as 59 paragliders and hang gliders should be allowed to land each day on a strip of North Star property. But the issue left the commissioners guessing how many landings would be detrimental to the wildlife in the area.

Paragliders and hang gliders have used the property as their morning landing site for most of the last two decades. The property is especially useful for flyers because the morning sun creates the lift they need to soar above the valley. Typically, said Aspen Paragliding owner Dick Jackson, the site is no longer needed after about 11 a.m.

Clapper and Commissioner Mick Ireland voted for as many as 69 landings a day – which local paragliders say is the number needed on the busiest days – until the county can determine the actual levels of use to set limits. But their motion was voted down.

“I really believe 69 landings on a busy day in a few short hours will have a huge impact on the wildlife,” said county wildlife biologist Jonathan Loewsky.

And while the other three commissioners agreed, they had difficulty deciding on an appropriate number. Farris indicated she’d be willing to ban the activity altogether. Lamont was willing to cap all landings – commercial and recreational – at 30. But Harper, who won the day, felt a total of 59, down from the 69 proposed by Clapper, was more appropriate.

“I don’t know where the cutoff is,” Harper said. “I don’t know where wildlife begins to be affected – 60 landings, 35 landings, 10 landings?”

Farris added, “Or one landing.”

The overall plan was adopted 4-1, with Farris dissenting.

The downvalley commissioner said she thought too many compromises had been made. Comparing the new rules to those that govern the Maroon Bells, one of Aspen’s top summertime tourist destinations, Farris said, “We’ve just approved a plan, a compromise that will change the character of that property.”

Harper took offense. “I have backed totally off my beliefs on this. I’ve just approved something that doesn’t allow kids to play on the beaches at North Star the way my kids got to,” she said.

Clapper chimed in by saying the land would be better off without any management plan at all. “We should have left it alone. If anything’s going to change it, it’s this document,” she said, lifting the management plan, which is several hundred pages off the table.

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