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Pitkin County limits commercial use at North Star in response to increased recreation, but some say the limits aren’t enough

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
A group of paddle boarders float down the Roaring Fork River at the North Star Nature Preserve outside of Aspen on July 16, 2023. Pitkin County has decided to limit the number of commercial operator permits to five, compared to the six to nine permits issued in recent years.

New limits are coming next spring for commercial outfitters who use the North Star Nature Preserve for paddleboarding, kayaking and other river recreation. On Tuesday, Pitkin County officials authorized Open Space and Trails staff to reduce the number of commercial permits available for that stretch of the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen — but some say even stricter regulations are warranted.

The new regulations are a response to increased recreation on the quiet nature preserve in recent years, as more people flock to the popular stretch of river for a peaceful float in the summer months.

In a joint meeting between county commissioners and the county’s Open Space and Trails board Tuesday, Open Space staff presented data showing the number of river users in the area increased from 6,284 people in 2018 (the year data collection started) to a peak of 14,946 in 2020, and then remained above 2018 numbers for the next several years. In 2023, there were 9,235 river users at North Star.

While commercial outfitters and their customers only make up about 30% of people floating North Star, Open Space and Trails staff proposed several new regulations for those businesses. That includes staggering commercial drop-offs and limiting commercial operator permits to five per year, compared to the six to nine active permits that have been used over the past eight years. This year, there were eight active commercial permits in use, which equated to 2,499 people on the river, according to Open Space and Trails data.

“Let’s tamp down some of the commercial use and do a process to get the best commercial operators to put in proposals and work with them to stagger their trip arrivals,” said Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Director Gary Tennenbaum.

Courtesy of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails
A graphic presented by Pitkin County Open Space and Trails staff at a meeting with county officials on Dec. 5, 2023, shows a noticeable increase in the number of river users floating through the North Star Nature Preserve over the last six years. Usage peaked in 2020, but visits over the last few years have shown an increase over 2018 numbers as well.

The new regulations did not require a formal vote or approval process, as they were within the scope of the area’s current management plan that is set to be updated in 2025. County commissioners and the Open Space and Trails board still chose to take public comments at the meeting.

Over half of the thirteen people who spoke pushed for even more stringent restrictions, including longtime Aspen residents Elizabeth, Edgar and Morgan Boyles, whose home is just down the road from the put-in managed by the U.S. Forest Service near the Wildwood School.

The Boyles family pointed out that the original conservation easement with the Aspen Valley Land Trust on the North Star parcel only allowed for one commercial river permit.

“My questions are, ‘Should commercial operations profit from the use of the nature preserve as a recreational commodity? Should a growing tourist demand for recreation be the deciding factor to change land use rules?,’” Edgar Boyles said.

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
A moose makes its way along the bank of the Roaring Fork River in the North Star Nature Preserve on July 16, 2023. While there has been a noticeable increase in moose sightings in the area, some local residents say sightings of other species such as osprey, heron and beaver have decreased in recent years.

Open Space and Trails staff have determined that wildlife populations are stable in the area with 77% of North Star closed to human activity year-round, but Boyles and other residents still have concerns about the impact recreation has on the ecosystem, especially as climate change worsens.

“The herons are gone, the ospreys are gone, beavers can’t do their natural thing, fish are dying at North Star,” said local resident Karin Teague, who also runs the Independence Pass Foundation. “Climate change is going to bring forth all kinds of anticipated and unanticipated consequences, and lots of past human activity is going to come back to roost, and it's going to affect these places, including North Star, dramatically.”

“We need to start managing it with that kind of forward thinking,” Teague added.

Tom Cardamone, a local ecologist and former Aspen Center for Environmental Studies director, also weighed in at Tuesday’s meeting.

Cardamone has been helping lead an initiative to study biodiversity in the Roaring Fork watershed, and he commended Open Space and Trails on its ongoing conservation efforts at North Star. He suggested that going forward, the county could measure biodiversity health on the preserve by comparing it to a less-altered environment upstream, since North Star was once used for agriculture and might not provide the most accurate baseline.

Courtesy of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails
A graphic presented by Pitkin County Open Space and Trails staff on Dec. 5, 2023 shows an increase in the number of permits granted to commercial river outfitters at North Star since 2015. The county plans to limit the number of permits to five starting next spring.

All four commercial operators who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting supported the new five permit limit, despite the possible impact to their business.

“Even at the potential expense of losing my permit, I think it's the right thing to do,” said James Foerster, co-owner of Elk Mountain Expeditions.

Foerster and other commercial outfitters, including Jim Ingram who owns Aspen Whitewater Rafting, made the case that they are stewards of North Star who go through a thorough screening process to get a permit and educate both their guests and public river users to respect the area.

“I guess I’m not one of those people that closes the door behind me, you know, ‘Hey I showed up in Aspen 30 years ago, I love it, nobody else can come.’ Our community thrives on people to have access to our land,” Ingram said.

While none of the commercial outfitters spoke in favor of lowering the new limits below five permits, a few said they’d support restricting the number of trips they’re allowed to make, as well as limiting self-guided commercial drop-offs.

Community volunteers plant native wetland seedlings with Pitkin County Open Space and Trails and Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers as part of a fen wetland restoration project on July 10, 2021.
Liza Mitchell
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails
Community volunteers plant native wetland seedlings with Pitkin County Open Space and Trails and Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers as part of a fen wetland restoration project on July 10, 2021.

Others at the meeting proposed creating a shuttle for public users to help reduce the number of cars, and restricting the number of non-commercial users, most of whom are local residents, since they make up about 70% of people floating down the river, but Colorado’s “right to float” river-access laws make that hard to enforce.

“It’s a very complicated management issue, with a lot of passion,” said Graeme Means, an Open Space and Trails trustee member. “Locals seem to be the problem, so hopefully locals can solve the problem.”

Ultimately, county officials supported the new permit limit, but agreed to continue looking at ways to measure human activity at the preserve and mitigate social and environmental impacts over the next year.

“This is exactly what we tackled with Maroon Bells: How do we spread out the use that continues to cultivate access while providing a better balance than what we're achieving now?” said Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury.

The latest management plan for the North Star area went into effect in 2020 and is set to be formally updated every five years.

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and "Morning Edition" anchor. She has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, creative efforts to solve the valley's affordable housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.