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Water fight over Oxbow

By Jim Haug Herald staff writer

Rowdy inner-tubers and rafters would devastate a wildlife habitat and ruin a quiet stretch of the Animas River if the city develops a boat ramp in the newly acquired Oxbow Park and Preserve just north of town, said critics during an emotional hearing Thursday at Durango Community Recreation Center.

Fearing more “mindless, crazed alcohol partying,” a new river access area “will be like 29th Street on steroids!” protested Susan Ulery, referring to another river access area in town.

Former La Plata County Commissioner Wally White said he never would have voted to support a state grant application for the funding of the city’s acquisition if he had known about the potential for a boat ramp to accommodate commercial rafting.

White said the “habitat destruction will be massive.”

Tim Wolfe, a riverfront property owner, complained of the “party barges” or masses of inner-tubers who barely move in the weak river current. He also complained that dogs belonging to inner tubers often run rampant over private property along the river.

“It just baffles me this (boat ramp) is even being considered,” Wolfe said. “There’s good wildlife there. If this park is allowed to happen with this sort of river access, it’s going to ruin it.”

Because of the tensions between riverfront homeowners and river users, Wolfe said he was worried about the potential for violent confrontations.

Commercial outfitters felt unfairly attacked, noting they provide Durango with a $20 million industry.

Alex Mickel, president of Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours, said commercial outfitters are good stewards of the river and respectful of private property.

None of Mild to Wild’s clients have abused or defaced private property or the river under the firm’s supervision, Mickel said.

Responding to a criticism that the Oxbow plans somehow were hatched in secret by city officials, Andy Corra of 4Corners Riversports praised the city for soliciting public input during a yearlong process to create the Animas River Corridor Management Plan.

The consensus “was we need more river put-ins” to reduce congestion at the river put-ins at 29th and 33rd streets, Corra said.

The city acquired the 43-acre property off Animas View Drive a year ago for $1.2 million, funded in part by a $400,000 grant from Great Outdoors Colorado, which uses proceeds from the state lottery for natural land preservation.

When asked to respond to former County Commissioner White’s criticisms that the city was not forthcoming with information, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said White should have asked more questions before he voted to support the grant application.

The county also was given opportunities to participate at many different levels. LeBlanc said he recalled asking White if the “county would like to partner with the city regarding the River Corridor Management Plan. His response was that the county was not interested in partnering with the city. I must admit that I did not make a ‘formal’ offer for the county to participate in the River Corridor Management Plan.”

The city plans to annex the property formerly known as Cameron-Sterk later this year.

While much of Oxbow would be set aside as a wildlife preserve, about 3 acres could be developed as passive recreation area with parking, restrooms and a boat ramp, not unlike the riverfront area at Dallabetta Park, said Kevin Hall, the city’s natural lands director.

Where the 3-acre area will be located is still subject to planning and analysis.

As a capital project for 2014, the city wants to develop a plan for how to best proceed with development of river access areas at Oxbow, 29th and 33rd streets, said Cathy Metz, the parks and recreation director.

Because of time needed for planning and construction, Metz said building a boat ramp at Oxbow would not start “until 2015 at the earliest.”

Brian Magee of Colorado Parks and Wildlife said a riparian preserve was urgently needed in La Plata County because of encroaching development.

People complain “why can’t wildlife go (elsewhere)? Well, where are they going to go?” said Magee, who advocated closing the preserve to the public in the winter.

jhaug@durangohherald.com

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