The city of Durango has applied for funding to help cover the cost of trail work and other maintenance projects after a season of “record-breaking” use, largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, has impacted local parks and open space.
Recently, the city partnered with land management agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, to form the Durango Area Trails Alliance, which works on outdoor recreation projects while balancing wildlife and other natural resource needs, said Cathy Metz, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department director.
“Staff members of each land management agency meet as needed to discuss and/or provide project updates from each agency and coordinate collaborative projects across the adjacent lands,” she said.
This month, the city applied for a nearly $36,000 grant through Great Outdoors Colorado, which uses a portion of lottery proceeds for outdoor projects, to hire a Southwest Conservation Corps youth crew.
A call to Kevin Heiner with Southwest Conservation Corps was not returned.
If approved, the grant would allow for the launch of trail maintenance work in three priority areas: Dalla Mountain Park, Overend Mountain Park and Horse Gulch, all on the outskirts of downtown Durango.
“With over 110 miles of trails within and immediately surrounding Durango, trail maintenance and stewardship is no small task,” the grant application says. “However, record-breaking trail user days during COVID-19 coupled with staff layoffs, hiring freezes and budget cuts have left trails ... in dire need of maintenance.”
City officials say unusually high use this year has caused significant erosion, damage to vegetation and an increase in the creation of social trails, unauthorized paths formed when people go off established trails.
In Dalla Mountain Park alone, the city has identified more than 7 miles of social trails, some of which could threaten archaeological sites. Another 3.5 miles or so of social trails have been found in Overend Mountain Park.
At a climbing area in north Durango known as X-Rock, which is actually on La Plata County land, increased use has led to concerns about extensive erosion that could dump sediment into the Animas River. The grant application says members of the climbing community have offered to help with the project, which includes putting up better signage.
In Horse Gulch, the city says the project would target trash cleanup, weed removal and installation of better signage to help recreationists find their way through the area in east Durango.
Metz said challenges with social trails, trash and erosion are ongoing problems on local trails, but the increased use this year has exacerbated the issues.
“Our outdoor recreation areas have seen very high use,” Metz said.
Back in spring, Gov. Jared Polis issued a public health order that asked residents to recreate within their communities, causing many people to stay local and recreate in their own backyard, Metz said.
Even though those public health orders have been lifted, many people are still staying local. And on top of that, more people are visiting the region and also taking to the outdoors on Durango’s open spaces.
“More people are out there, (so) there is more degradation of the resource,” Metz said. “It is pervasive around the city.”
To make matters worse, the city of Durango, early in the pandemic, had to let go of part-time staff members and furlough full-time workers.
“That had a dramatic impact on the Parks and Rec department,” Metz said.
Some positions have been hired back, but there’s a huge backlog of work to be done, Metz said. Particularly an issue this year, she said, is cleaning up illegal homeless camps around the city.
All of Colorado’s outdoor spaces are seeing incredible use this year, said Chris Yuan-Farrell with GOCO, so much so that GOCO created a grant to help communities deal with an increase of visitors because of the pandemic.
The grant has allocated $15 million over four grant cycles.
Yuan-Farrell said many communities are seeing weekend level traffic on most weekdays, and holiday level traffic on weekends. This has caused many places to seek additional money to deal with the significant and consistent amount of visitors.
Many places are asking for help to pay for more trailhead space, close down social trails, deal with trail braiding issues, build restrooms and address natural resource degradation.
“Constitutionally, we can’t fund first-in-line responses for health and human services,” he said. “But what we could offer is the outdoor recreation, open-space side.”
The city of Durango’s grant application is under a different program, through GOCO’s Conservation Service Corps grant. Yuan-Farrell said a decision about who is awarded a grant should be announced this fall.
GOCO awards about $1 million through the Conservation Service Corps grant a year.
Metz said if the grant is awarded, the project is hoping to start work in 2021.
“There’s such a high demand in outdoor recreation in Colorado because of COVID-19,” Metz said. “Lots of people are comfortable ... being outside.”