Vail Daily column: Getting to rivers can be tough
To borrow a phrase from Norman Mclean, when it comes to the recreation economy of Eagle County, a river runs through it. The Colorado River and its tributaries, including the Eagle, are part of a $9 billion a year recreation business in Colorado. Rafting, kayaking, fishing, stand-up paddleboarding and tubing are activities that use the rivers directly. But the rivers support more than just water-based activity. They become the locus for recreation trails, scenic roadways such as U.S. Highway 6, the River Road and the Trough Road. People coming to enjoy the rivers directly, or indirectly, stay, shop and dine in Eagle County.
One of the biggest obstacles to river-based recreation has been the lack of adequate access. In Colorado, the generally accepted rule is that if you can get to the river, then you can float it. So long as you stay in the boat and don’t touch the bottom, even with an anchor, you are on “public” water and not trespassing. But getting down to the river hasn’t been easy.
Historically land development has been in the valleys along the river corridors. Nearly all the land along the Eagle and Colorado was homesteaded and acquired for private ownership, unlike the higher uplands and forests, which largely remained in public ownership. Public access to the forests and BLM lands, while not always straightforward, has been easier than along our rivers.
During the past two years, Eagle County and the Eagle Valley Land Trust have worked hard to change that. Access for river recreation between State Bridge and Dotsero was limited to just a couple key places, with long reaches in between. Eagle County’s Open Space program has bought and developed new access points at Two Bridges, Red Dirt Creek, Horse Creek on the Colorado River Ranch and Dotsero Landing. These acquisitions have turned a long, sometimes arduous float into shorter, easier, family-friendly days out on the river.
These new boat landings open up more than 40 miles of relatively easy floating river, creating a huge new boost for Eagle County’s summer recreation opportunities. These newly opened reaches of river will also take some of the pressure off the heavily used whitewater Pumphouse to State Bridge reach while still maintaining the solitude and other characteristics that make the lower reach unique.
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On the Eagle River, the county and Eagle Valley Land Trust have also teamed up to get access and open space protection on key properties, most recently the Horn Ranch. The Horn Ranch will create a figurative keystone property along the Eagle in the heart of Red Canyon. It is a “jewel” that will open up more than a mile of river to public access.
Years ago, after the county had helped acquire land for public access at the Bair Ranch and then with the Eagle River Preserve in Edwards, I suggested that they and partners like the Eagle Valley Land Trust work to develop a “greenway” along the Eagle that could connect the two parcels. With the Duck Pond, Brush Creek Confluence and now the Horn Ranch, it seems that such a green way of protected public access and open space might be possible.
Eagle County and their partners are to be congratulated for having the foresight in opening up both the Colorado and Eagle rivers to greater public access and recreation. There are still some key parcels that should be acquired, parcels that will complete a superb system of well-developed river-based recreational opportunities. It would be great to see Eagle County become as well known for its rivers as it is for its skiing, wilderness hiking and mountain biking.
Increased recreation on the rivers also has the added benefit of more people experiencing the rivers. People who have a personal stake in the rivers care for them, and we need to care for and protect our rivers as the demands for water grow throughout the state. Healthy rivers and a vibrant recreational economy need water just as much as farms and the growing cities of the Front Range. Striking a balance that includes rivers won’t be easy, but there is a better chance the more people know them.
Ken Neubecker is the Eagle River Blue Trail coordinator with American Rivers. The Blue Trail program works to connect people with their rivers through recreation and access.