Go slow on Oxbow

Markward

The City of Durango is currently reviewing a management plan for the 44-acre Oxbow Park and Preserve, formerly known as Cameron-Sterk.

The development, as outlined to the public in meetings for the Animas River Trail in 2012, was to be for open space with a trail running through it, access to the river for “passive” recreation and some parking.

Somehow, in the intervening months between applying with Great Outdoors Colorado for open-space funding and today, it morphed from 3 acres of developed space into at least 6 acres, complete with proposed roads up to 40 feet wide, parking lots, launch ramps, etc. Most will be built in floodway. Significant word changes, such as “commercial use,” “special events” and “active” recreation now direct Oxbow’s draft management plan.

The development of this open space acquisition deserves considerably more public debate than the Parks and Recreation Department has scheduled for it. Real collaboration must be crafted between interested parties: rafting companies trying to be profitable, ranchers worried about their livestock and irrigation weirs, city residents already significantly affected by this summer’s increase in river users’ parking and partying at Oxbow, 33rd and 29th streets, the city and county officials and enforcers who will be tasked with patrolling, controlling and financing recreation on this stretch of river. Indeed, the Colorado Governor’s River Task Force emphasizes that creating a long-term, mutually acceptable strategy is the only way to have sustainable river use.

Colorado “Right to Float” river law is central to this question: the river banks and river bottoms of the Animas Valley are privately owned, which means no one should ever be out of his or her water craft to swim, to wade, to alight on beaches. Obviously, given the number of complaints already registered by residents with the Durango Police Department and the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office this year, trespass is an issue. Litter, urination, public nudity and, critically, illegal bonfires are all serious concerns on private riverbanks inaccessible by road and, therefore, by the authorities.

Decisions made by Parks and Recreation and its advisory boards will affect boaters, floaters, the police and sheriff’s departments, Animas View Drive residents and all riverfront property owners up and downstream from Oxbow. As important, it will affect a truly sweet riparian area. We are gifted to share our valley space with migrating birds and mammals – merganzers, mallards, buffleheads, ouzels, kingfishers, bald eagles, golden eagles, condors and the great blue herons, which are currently teaching their young to fish along the Animas’ banks. Coyote, fox, deer, elk and bear live in this corridor. Much of this wildlife is sensitive to exposure of loud noises and human presence.

I would like to see the city and county jointly review the Oxbow proposal and its impacts: financial, floodway issues, “carrying capacity” (how many can enjoy the river without causing undue harm or frustration to all involved), safety, how unrestricted and ungoverned access at Oxbow will affect downstream takeouts at 33rd and 29th, and how development at Oxbow fits into Durango and La Plata County’s long term open-space planning.

The recent application by a local rafting company to open a put-in farther north in the Animas Valley for commercial trips will compound these concerns. The company has requested a minimum of 40-passenger launches, twice a day, 120 days a year – potentially $600,000 in revenue. Its guests will be floating for five hours through entirely private lands, which brings up questions involving sanitation, trespass and evacuation in case of emergency. Then they’ll take out at an already swamped access in Durango. It’s a great move for the company, especially if the county collects the same measly $500 a year in permits per company that the city currently does. The commercialization certainly won’t stop there. Other companies will then want to benefit.

What levels of use should we encourage? What level destroys the resource people want to enjoy? What level compromises private-property rights? And how do we pay for it – as taxpayers, or as individual users of the river?

Other cities in Colorado and around the country have hired independent, professional river resource management planners to help identify and align all the competing points of view. Let us learn from the best management practices already identified by national experts. Let us collaborate: There are low-impact, high-value ways to make this area both accessible to the public and still protective of the river itself. The city is rushing through this management plan for Oxbow and committing us all to a future many do not feel is sustainable – politically, economically or environmentally. We can do better.

Anne Markward has worked with governments and conservation groups on sustainable tourism planning in Africa, Latin America and Asia-Pacific countries. A community-based marine project she developed in Belize with The Nature Conservancy won the United Nation’s sustainability award in 2002. Reach her at amarkward@gmail.com.

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