Members of Aspen City Council and city administrators heard a presentation Friday about ways local governments can help manage the onslaught of paddleboarding in area rivers and its effect on wildlife.
In the second day of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns meeting, held at the Limelight Hotel this week, Mel Yemma, a planner with the town of Crested Butte, and Noel Durant, executive director of the Crested Butte Land Trust, presented their solution to the overcrowded party atmosphere that occurred on the Slate River after a tourism video of the float went viral in 2017.
The Slate River runs underneath more than 25 great blue heron nests, one of the highest elevation rookeries in the country. Conservationists demanded that the river be shut down to recreational use.
“The land trust was being called out for allowing people to trample over this very pristine area,” Durant said.
But he said along with their mission to protect the environment, they also exist to protect open space for ranches and recreation.
“What we have is a conflict between this principle of providing recreational access on the edge of our town and the wildlife habitat that we are tasked with protecting,” said Durant. “We need to protect both of those things so we found [ourselves] in the messy middle.”
Yemma laid out the yearlong process that the town went through in order to create a management plan specific to stand-up paddleboarding. Multiple nonprofits, government agencies, commercial guides and private landowners met during facilitated conversations to work on a conservation strategy.
“It was a very contentious issue and we really wanted to focus on building trust and understanding each other,” Yemma said.
She said the group never considered banning stand-up paddleboarding, but it was clear that education campaigns needed to occur about the route. The 12-mile stretch of the river can be accessed through Bureau of Land Management property, or city-owned property, and the route goes through designated conservation districts, land trusts, ranch land and private residences.
“We weren’t talking about shutting down the river,” said Yemma. “We were talking about how to build a community ethic.”
Yemma told the group that the agreed-upon river ethics went a long way to alleviating concerns from many of the stakeholders. She said once signage and other outreach campaigns began, the way people used the river changed.
“With stand-up paddleboarding, it’s such an entry-level thing that anyone can do,” she said. “A lot of people think it might be Disneyland and they have no idea, [so we created] signing to be respectful and to please not go to the bathroom in the willows right off the river.”
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails is currently collecting public feedback about the popular North Star Nature Preserve float. OST created its most recent management plan for the area in 2015, expiring in 2020.
Like the Slate River in Crested Butte, the upper Roaring Fork River meanders through conservation areas east of Aspen city limits. Some 188 acres along the river that are closed to public are managed by OST and host a variety of wildlife within the ecosystem. The 2015 plan notes that great blue heron nesting has gone down and says recreation may be one of a handful of determinants influencing the change.
“The decrease could be attributable to various factors, including predation, former nest trees becoming unsuitable and the increase in river use,” states the plan.
In the last five years the county has also implemented trail closures, overseen restoration projects and required permits for commercial guides using the river for profit.
The put in location near Wildwood School and the take out at the Stillwater Bridge have also been addressed. Bike racks were added to help those shuttling their flotation devices without using a vehicle and signage regarding quiet zones and private property notices have been added.
The town of Crested Butte was not able to close the river during the herons’ sensitive nesting season, but it did implement a voluntary “no float” period before July 15. Six cases of a member of the public disregarding the restriction were recorded, but many others understood and went elsewhere when confronted with a paid staffer who was stationed at the put in.
“Dissuading the 20-somethings who had their unicorn inner tube and their 30 rack of Keystone Light,” Durant said. “[She told them,] you should go somewhere else and they listened.”
In Aspen, there are no restrictions, or suggested voluntary closures, for when the public is allowed on the Roaring Fork River.
“The public is allowed to float the Roaring Fork River through the property and take out at the South Gate or the North Star Pedestrian Bridge river access. There are quiet zones around the heronries and, in general, the public is asked to enjoy the preserve in a peaceful and respectful manner,” reads the management plan.
The team from Crested Butte used infrared counters to monitor the recreational use of the river through the summer. The same system is recommended in the North Star Nature Preserve management plan.
Aspen Mayor Torre, Councilmember Rachel Richards and City Manager Sara Ott were all in attendance for the paddleboard management presentation. A summary of public input and updated management plan for the North Star float is scheduled to be adopted by the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners in May.