Citizens question Lower Blue plan | SummitDaily.com

Citizens question Lower Blue plan

BOB BERWYN
summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado

SUMMIT COUNTY ” Eddies of skepticism swirled around the Silverthorne library Tuesday night, as local boaters and anglers questioned officials about potential use restrictions on the Lower Blue River, downstream of Green Mountain Reservoir.

The open house was held to inform the public about a draft plan for managing the 15-mile reach, extending from below Green Mountain Dam to the confluence with the Colorado River. Options include a permit system with seasonal restrictions on various uses and a cap on boat launches.

Federal land managers and ranch owners in the Lower Blue said conflicts among user groups ” primarily anglers and boaters ” are growing. They want to preserve the natural resources and protect the recreational experience.

But some local residents said the plan is tilted toward private interests.

“They claim it’s overused, but I’m looking for more empirical evidence. Where are the numbers?” said local boater Derek Gamburg. “To me, this is all (Blue Valley Ranch owner) Paul Jones looking to limit the number of boats,” Gamburg said.

“It’s not an overused river,” said Gamburg, who floats the reach frequently. “On a busy day, there might be 20 boats. That may be a lot to the private landowners, but it’s not for us. I understand trying to maintain it, but doing it in a restrictive way is not fair.”

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Blue Valley Ranch manager Perry Handyside said the goal of the plan is not to restrict access but to focus on preserving the area.

“Conservation is really important to us. It’s our number one goal at the ranch. We’re trying to protect the resources,” Handyside said.

“What about public rights,” said Summit Cove resident Todd Rosko. “To me, when I look at this, it’s all for the landowner. … The land swap will make (access) even tougher. He’ll control the whole river,” Rosko said, referring to a pending land trade that would consolidate private land ownership along part of the river.

County Commissioner Tom Long said the land trade is a separate process, but also acknowledged that the planning effort and swap go “hand-in-hand” in some ways. If the land ownership pattern changes as a result of a trade, it could require changes to the plan, he said.

Public officials tried to focus on process at the open house, but the citizens who filled the room wanted specific answers to their questions. At one point, Richard Strauss, a frequent Front Range Blue River user, wanted to speak to the crowd. Assistant county manager Steve Hill initially tried to stick with the original posterboard format, but relented after an informal show of hands indicated that the group wanted to hear from Strauss and others.

Strauss and others advocated for more public involvement in the planning process. Public users should be represented at the table when a stakeholder group meets to refine the draft plan based on the current round of public input, Strauss said.

Some recreational users said they are not represented and were not adequately notified of the process and meetings.

Everyone involved acknowledges that private interests along the Blue, accounting for about 70 percent of the land ownership, have made tremendous investments to improve the fisheries. The improvements are designed to create deep pools of fish habitat, but they can also make it more difficult for the public to exercise its right to access the water (see sidebar).

Two large ranches, Shadow Creek and Blue Valley Ranch, along with several homeowner associations, own the land along the river and also the river-bottom.

“The weirs make it tough to negotiate the river,” said Rosko, explaining that it’s difficult to float the Lower Blue at certain times without touching bottom, or even just brushing a boulder, which technically constitutes trespassing under Colorado law.

“It’s such a hassle to use it,” Rosko said, adding that he visits the reach less frequently because the landowners have set up barriers to public use.

“I feel like I’m being watched the whole time ” they’re just waiting for us to break the law,” Rosko said. He’s been followed while using public roads to gain legal access to the river, and said that one guiding service based in Kremmling even uses video surveillance to watch over a leased stretch of water.

“I’ll play by the rules, which are that you can’t touch bottom. But it’s structured so it’s really hard to get through without touching,” he said.

“We’ve heard a lot of that,” said Handyside. But it’s not the case. Absolutely, that’s not the goal. They are not designed to obstruct access,” he said.

Handyside explained that there are two types of structures in the river: Diversion weirs designed to divert water for irrigation at low flows, and other features aimed at creating habitat for fish.

The larger river structures, whether constructed for irrigation diversions or improving fisheries habitat, are designed specifically to make it easier for floaters to pass over them. This is accomplished by placing one or a series of step pools gradually dropping off directly below the structure making it easier and safer for boaters,” Handyside said.

“We want to find an equitable balance,” Handyside said. The ranch doesn’t employ people to follow boaters and watch for trespass, he concluded.

Rosko’s comments were echoed word-for-word by professional guide and Cutthroat Anglers owner Trapper Rudd.

Heavy-handed enforcement of private property rights along the Blue may be going to far, according to Rudd.

He said he only goes fishing on the Lower Blue when he’s invited by private landowners. Even so, he once found two of his tires punctured when he returned to his car after an angling excursion.

“We’ve always been a strong proponent of private water,” Rudd said. “We get hit in the shop here with a tremendous number of people who want to float the Lower Blue. But the way it’s structured, it’s hard to do without trespassing,” he said, referring to the man-made features in the water that make it hard for boats or float tubes to pass by without touching the bottom.

Rudd said he also appreciates the work private interests have done to improve the fishery, but decried an overall trend toward greater privatization of rivers in Colorado.

“We also want to serve the public. It’s a travesty that there so much privatization of rivers. It limits access to what nature created long before anybody owned the land,” Rudd said.

The draft Blue River plan is available for review at http://www.co.summit.co.us. The public can make comments electronically through March 13 at the county website.