Thursday, May 28, 2020

New countywide committee to tackle sustainable tourism

Commissioners likely to approve a resolution forming the group soon

By Toni Todd

Sustainability is a hard thing to define. The Gunnison County commissioners and staff are endeavoring to do just that, at least where recreation is concerned, by forming a Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee (STORC).

The idea sprang from the efforts of the One Valley Prosperity Project (OVPP), and will likely begin to take shape this fall. Meanwhile, a draft resolution of the STORC charter will be drawn up for commissioners to approve and sign, to officially initiate the process of forming the committee and getting them going.

At their work session this past Tuesday, Gunnison County commissioners discussed and provided feedback on the initial draft of the charter, designed to guide the newly formed committee by identifying general goals and objectives. The committee could include representatives from various federal and state agencies, municipalities, Western State Colorado University, the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association, and members of the public at large. The charter is modeled after the document used to form the structure for the Gunnison Sage Grouse Strategic Committee.

Commissioners and county staff discussed some of the finer points of the charter, agreed to some small changes to its wording, and had a general chat about their overall hopes for the committee and how they envision it working.

“I love the idea of having broad-based participation,” said county commissioner Phil Chamberland. He did express concern, however, for the prospective size of the committee.

“We’re looking at about 20 people,” confirmed Gunnison community development director Cathie Pagano. “So, it’s a big group.”

County manager Matthew Birnie suggested that, although the entire group will be large, it’s likely they’ll break into sub-committees to tackle specific issues.

Pagano explained that many of the broader goals identified in the charter came from the OVPP, which brought residents together to identify area strengths and weaknesses as a community, and to help identify what we need to thrive.

Pagano said Erica Mueller of Crested Butte Mountain Resort has expressed interest in being a part of the committee. Commissioner John Messner suggested that rather than include specific private groups, CBMR might be considered an at-large public representative.

“Well, they are the biggest employer in the valley,” said Chamberland, “and they employ in the recreation business.”

Pagano said that many OVPP goals were centered on CBMR, and that they had been a major contributor to those discussions. She shared Mueller’s comments from the OVPP discussions regarding concentration at the north end of the valley. “She [Mueller] said, ‘We’re set up for density of use. Whether it’s winter or summer, we’re set up for that. We’d love to have those people recreating here.’ It’s a benefit for them, certainly, but it’s also a benefit to the rest of the valley.”

Assistant county manager Marlene Crosby suggested dispersed camping, as identified in the charter, should be clarified. “There was some concern that spreading people around would send them to places that had not been impacted by development, and we want to instead spread them to underutilized, developed areas, not new areas,” she said.

“As much as possible, I’d like this to focus on recreation infrastructure holistically, and not just a trails master plan. Because that’s not what this is,” added Messner.

“It might be possible to have two things here,” suggested Pagano. “I think doing the trails master plan first, and taking a bite out of it, and then doing a recreation plan after that [could work]. I would suggest you let this group talk through those two things before you make them a specific goal.”

“Certainly, your input is necessary as well, but what do you want this group to focus on?” asked Birnie. “Because a recreation master plan that encompasses everything will be all it does for a couple of years. Or, do you want them to look for things to do on the ground while working toward some sort of a planning effort?”

The committee’s charge would be, suggested Chamberland, “Where do we need parking lots? Where do we need bathrooms? Where do we need infrastructure?”

Birnie suggested the initial approach could be more of an assessment than a plan.

“I just get worried that it’s real easy, and then we hire a consultant and we spend a lot of time on a plan, which may be ultimately valuable, but I just wouldn’t want to see us not address some actual problems that we know, right now, without planning, without doing anything else, like, ‘Boy, it sure would be nice to have a bathroom at that trailhead,’” he said.

“Well, and that’s what keeps your committee engaged and motivated,” added Crosby. “They don’t want to come to a meeting monthly or weekly and talk about 20 years from now. They want to talk about right now.”

Pagano asked how commissioners thought the assessment would be different from what the OVPP already identified.

“It would be more specific,” said Messner.

“OVPP didn’t say, ‘We need a bathroom at Washington Gulch.’ OVPP didn’t say, ‘We need a winter parking lot at Cement Creek,’” clarified Chamberland.

That moved the discussion to funding. Chamberland was confident that a community effort like the STORC could position the county well for grant funding from a number of sources.

Messner complimented Pagano on the draft charter. “Thank you for this,” he said. “This is really good.”

“The Trails Commission was formed by resolution so we need to give them some direction. This new committee would replace the current Gunnison Trails Commission,” said Crosby.

“And the work that they’ve done becomes a resource for this effort,” added Messner.

Alan Wartes of the Gunnison Country Times asked the commissioners, “What does ‘sustainable’ mean to you? I can hear people saying, ‘Oh my God, another group increasing tourism.’”

“This is more evaluative,” said Chamberland. “It’s asking, ‘What can we sustain and not ruin the resource itself?”

“I think the reason people are feeling the impacts [from tourism] is the lack of infrastructure,” added Messner.

“None of the mission here is to increase tourism,” continued Chamberland, but added rhetorically, “but once you address infrastructure, will you attract more people?”

“The population’s not going down,” said Birnie. “I think doing this is a lot better than being reactive. But yes, we’ll always be chasing it.”

Commissioners agreed they’d like to approve the resolution as soon as possible.

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