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Slate River float plan gearing up for spring

Developing a new community ethic for floating

by Mark Reaman

For the first time ever, a program is in place to reduce impacts of recreation on the Slate River, especially on the portion of the river that is home to a great blue heron rookery. The program is focused on outreach and education but is highlighted by a voluntary no-float period on the upper Slate River, in place this year until July 15.

A working group of 18 stakeholders has been meeting for about a year and has released a plan that details ways to respect private property and wildlife while allowing recreation. The group was formed after private property owners on that section of the upper Slate noticed that an increase in recreational floaters resulted in disturbances to the blue herons and other wildlife.

The increase in people also came with other impacts such as trespassing, loud music in sensitive nesting areas and people going to the bathroom in the wetlands. There were threats to fence the river but instead, the working group was formed and through a series of sometimes-contentious meetings, the 2019 plan was formulated.

That plan is focused on management practices that will result in a cohesive river and environmental stewardship ethic within the community. It seeks a balance between conservation values, protection of the views, wildlife and ranching practices with the unique recreation experience.

Since education and awareness will be the focus at this point, new signs will be erected at the popular put-ins such as the Gunsight Bridge and Crested Butte Rec Path bridge. That will happen in late May. The signs share information about the Slate and how to be a responsible user of the river.

A person has been hired to get out on the river and emphasize those points throughout the spring and summer. She will roam the river’s access points to interact with users and explain the emerging river use ethic. She will also be collecting data on river users to help guide future management decisions. Temporary bathrooms will be installed at Gunsight Bridge and the town Recreation Path bridges. At the same time, a study of the herons by Western Colorado University will continue this summer.

But the most challenging part of the plan is expected to be the adherence to a voluntary “no-float period” on the upper river between the Gunsight Bridge and the Rec Path bridge that runs through mid-July. That date was chosen based on what is expected to be a long runoff period due to the heavy snowfall from last winter.

The action is intended to protect the heron chicks that are located in the rookery nests south of the Gunsight put-in.

Crested Butte Land Trust stewardship director Hedda Peterson said, based on observations made last summer, about half of the chicks had fledged their nests by July 10. Close to 88 percent of the herons were beyond what was termed “biologically sensitive days” by mid-July. “So thoughtful information helped inform the group on the decision to choose an ending date for the no-float period,” she told the Crested Butte Town Council on May 6. “Given this year’s expected runoff, we anticipate there will be about 23 float days left after that date for people to use that portion of the river before it gets too low to float. We felt good about that compromise as a working group this year.”

Peterson and Crested Butte Open Space coordinator Mel Yemma said the group is trying to be careful in communicating that while human disturbance is one factor impacting the herons, there are probably others. Other compounding variables mentioned included available forage and the health of the trees the herons nest in. But the group wanted to address the obvious impacts immediately.

“Luckily we have a lot of floating options around here and people can choose to use other locations during that voluntary no-float time. The other thing is that during the time period, people can still float on the BLM-administered portions of the river, meaning from Oh-Be-Joyful campground to River Flats,” added Yemma.

“We want this plan to be a community decision and for the community to embrace this type of community ethic.” Yemma likened the situation to mountain bikers understanding they should not ride trails when they are muddy.

The working group will hold an open house on the new program on Thursday, May 16 at 5 p.m. at the Depot.

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