Pitkin County Open Space and Trails is making it official: protecting biodiversity is more important than recreation. A new policy focuses on preserving natural habitats, even if that means keeping some areas closed to humans.
There’s a very large spruce on the south side of the Northstar Nature Preserve that John Armstrong says acts as a natural umbrella for bears.
“There must have been ten piles of bear scat,” Armstrong said. “Obviously they were just hanging out.”
Armstrong is senior ranger for Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, and one of very few people who may have seen this tree. Much of Northstar is closed to human use and serves as a refuge for animals like those bears, as well as elk, great blue herons, deer, moose, and more.
An increase in recreation across the Rocky Mountains has some organizations scrambling to find a balance between human uses and protecting sensitive habitats. Management of open space properties has also been the subject of debate among Pitkin County commissioner candidates.
But, according to Dale Will, executive director of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, the closure of open spaces is representative of the county’s commitment to biodiversity. The newly adopted policy formalizes what has already been in practice.
“If you look at the work of the open space department over the last 25 years, there’s been an ongoing serious commitment to the protection of biodiversity,” Will said.
The new policy says Open Space and Trails will use the “best available science” to set the minimum protections on habitats. Will says the program will often keep areas closed beyond that — just in case the science isn’t perfect.
“We want to go above and beyond and just set some places aside so that animals have even more breathing space than they would otherwise,” Will said.
About half of the land that the program owns is completely closed for habitat protection, and much more closes seasonally. But Northstar is unique in that only about one of 175 acres is accessible to humans, because it’s intended as a nature preserve.
The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies owns land adjacent to the preserve and helps with management. Jim Kravitz, who works at the nonprofit, explains it through elk migration.
“They have incredible rituals right here in Northstar - the rut, the bugling, the big harem of cows and it’s just an incredible sight to be seen,” Kravitz said. “Northstar is so important because it provides this transition zone. If you don’t have this protected and you have people milling over here, you’re messing up one of the most incredible wildlife stories anywhere.”