Increasing use leads to resource concerns at North Star preserve

by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

The exploding popularity of stand-up paddleboarding and other recreational floating activities along the North Star Nature Preserve section of the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen has led to heightened concerns about noise and trash.

With the summer heat underway, floaters have reported seeing and picking up more trash in the river and along its protected banks. Pitkin County open space senior ranger John Armstrong confirmed his growing concern that the popular and beautiful area is being loved to death. The 2-mile stretch from the put-in at Wildwood to the footbridge take out near Highway 82 was as busy as he’d ever seen it on the Fourth of July, Armstrong reported.

“I counted 62 vehicles between 4 and 5 p.m. ... associated with floating the river,” Armstrong wrote in an email. “I could not count all the users.”

Three years ago, if there were a dozen stand-up paddleboarders on the river in a day, that would be rare, Armstrong said last week. Now it’s not uncommon for several hundred to use the river on a busy day, he said.

“That sport has burgeoned seemingly out of nowhere,” he said.

And while the debate could be endless about who is to blame, the increasing use is accompanying increasing trash. The most common littered items, according to Armstrong, are beer cans and cheap flotation devices such as inner tubes and small rafts that popped along the way, proving unworthy of the mellow river. One open space ranger reported collecting 20 punctured water craft on the weekend before the holiday, Armstrong said.

“It’s something that has taken up the lion’s share of our time at this point,” he said in reference to managing the river corridor.

The North Star Nature Preserve was the first parcel the county’s open space program acquired, in the late 1970s. It’s near and dear to many locals’ hearts for its beauty and its place bordering the east entrance to town. It is also one of the continent’s highest-altitude heron rookeries.

“It’s the foundation of the open space program,” Armstrong said.

With increasing use, the county has been upping its efforts to educate the public on the value of the nature preserve. In a partnership with the Roaring Fork Conservancy, an educator from the conservancy has been at the nature preserve on Saturdays this summer. That job has fallen to Elise Osenga, who said the number of people using the river has been a bit of a shock.

“I understand why — it’s beautiful,” Osenga said, noting she saw at least 30 floaters in a 1-mile stretch from the put in at Wildwood to one of the few areas where it is legal to take out in the middle of the preserve.

Osenga said her mission is to answer questions about the area’s unique natural characteristics and remind people “that this resource is something we need to treat with care.”

“Especially with the increasing number of people out there, it’s important to be treading lightly,” she said.

The response from the public has been positive so far, Osenga said.

The county has installed new signs along the river to remind floaters that they cannot land on the banks except in three designated areas. Landing in a non-designated spot in the nature preserve, or allowing a dog to roam the banks, subjects users to potential fines.

Armstrong said another challenge is that the occasional party atmosphere of summer river floats is not compatible with a nature preserve.

“One of the things that doesn’t work with a nature preserve is hooting and hollering,” he said.

The strategy at this point is to rely on education and better messaging to ensure users respect the preserve, Armstrong said.

“It’s a nature preserve first and a recreation area much further down the line,” he said. “ ... I just hope that people can rise to a little higher level of consciousness out there.”