Anglers and hikers, snowmobilers and mountain bikers might notice some construction work near Tiger Road and Muggins Gulch starting this summer.
The Forest Service announced Wednesday, April 2, its completion of the environmental assessment for the Swan River restoration project.
The 35-page document, released March 31, details the project proposal for the river, which lies along Tiger Road in Breckenridge. According to the Forest Service, the environmental assessment found all key issues for the project, including resource concerns and impacts, could be resolved or lessened through the project design.
The 2-mile project, a small part of larger restoration plans for the entire 24,000-acre Swan River Watershed, has involved years of cooperation and collaboration among private and public landowners and stakeholders, including the town of Breckenridge, Summit County, and a handful of nonprofits.
Corey Lewellen, a biologist with the Dillon Ranger District, has been the person connecting all the dots.
“Corey has earned a lot of appreciation for all the work he’s done in pulling this together,” said Troy Wineland, a board member of Blue River Watershed Group.
Peggy Bailey, a hydraulic engineer who worked on restoration of the Blue River in the 1990s, called this project unique because of all the players involved.
The river area “is so totally ruined,” Bailey, also a board member of the Blue River Watershed Group, said. “You really are starting from scratch.”
Once Upon A Mine
More than 100 years ago, miners plundered Summit County’s rivers in search of gold. In giant steam-powered barges, they worked up the Blue and Swan rivers using a technique called dredge mining. They dug deep below the riverbed, brought cobble and rock to the surface and scoured it for precious metals.
“They flipped the river upside down,” Lewellen said.
Now, he said, parts of the river are buried by up to 80 feet of rock, causing gaps where the river flows underground and reappears down valley.
Before the mining, the 100-acre Swan River Valley was home to wetlands, willows, beaver ponds and a healthy cutthroat trout population.
“If you go out there right now, that’s all gone,” he said. “All you see is tons and tons of rock.”
The Swan River, a tributary of the Blue River, was formed by three tributaries that joined to become the main Swan until four generations ago.
Because the three forks no longer meet, the native cutthroat trout have been isolated in the north fork of the tributaries. The population has become genetically similar and unhealthy, Lewellen said, and threatened by invasive brook trout.
The restoration will provide about 15 miles of fish habitat. Part of it includes relocating the brook trout and reintroducing the cutthroat trout so they can migrate freely among the three tributaries. That part of the process is probably several years off.
“We’ve got to first and foremost fix this river,” he said. “That’s quite a task just by itself.”
Some parts are already done. Blue River Watershed Group funded the stream design, and Sam McCleneghen, owner of the sand and gravel mining business Rock Island Land Co., contracted with Everist Materials, a company that has been mining the rock in the lower part of the river for the last four or five years.
Now the proposal is in the middle of a 45-day objection period. Those who spoke on the project during the comment period earlier in the year can still file an objection if they believe issues they raised have not been adequately addressed. Lewellen said objections are unlikely because the four comments received were supportive or not in reference to the project.
The next steps likely will happen sometime in May, Lewellen said, when the Forest Service finalizes the assessment and signs public access easements with the people who own land in the upper mile of the project.
The landowners, Brian Holt, owner of the snowmobiling and dogsledding company Good Times Adventure Tours, and McCleneghen are supportive of the project, Lewellen said, and they plan to grant public access to land about 180-feet wide through the middle of their properties. This not only allows for restoration work but also for river access for the public who want to enjoy it recreationally.
This summer, people can expect to see a new road in the Muggins Gulch area built and the old one decommissioned.
How You Can Get Involved
The restoration will cost about $8 million, Lewellen said. But part of the project already has paid for itself. In 2007, the Daily reported developers of a subdivision in Muggins Gulch bought and removed gravel from the area to use as structural fill for their development.
The rest of the funding will come from a variety of sources, he said, including nonprofit fundraising, grants, and local, state and federal money.
The project will be completed in segments over the next five to 10 years, Lewellen said.
Bailey, a hydraulic engineer, said she would love if the nonprofit could “secure a nice big hunk of finance so we could do it all at once.”
Local nonprofits, including Trout Unlimited and Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, have scheduled volunteering opportunities for anyone who wants to contribute labor.
The complete environmental assessment and information about filing an objection can be found at the White River National Forest website at: http://www.fs.usda.gov/projects/whiteriver/landmanagement/projects under Swan River Stream Restoration.