County looking at Gunnison area for state park potential

“W” Mountain toward Hartman Rocks

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

Gunnison county commissioners have agreed to explore what it would take to secure a state park nomination with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and join several areas together to create a recreational basecamp and potential conservation area at the south end of the valley. The idea is to use a combination of county and state owned lands that takes advantage of proximity to various recreational areas, archeological interest and city amenities. The next steps will be working with CPW and stakeholders to make sure all who might be impacted are comfortable.
Commissioner chairperson Jonathan Houck introduced the discussion with commissioners and county manager Matthew Birnie at their regularly scheduled meeting on January 12, explaining that CPW is currently accepting state park nominations.

“The state is looking at opportunities to be responsive to the growing population in Colorado, the growing popularity of outdoor recreation. That includes hunting and fishing as well as biking and hiking, all sorts of outdoor pursuits. And one of the challenges we’ve had in Gunnison County is we’ve seen this explosion of use on public land.” That has brought management challenges and questions of how to protect wildlife habitat.

Houck reviewed a vision the board had discussed when former commissioner John Messner was still a member, which included using a combination of county and state-owned land around the “W” Mountain area to create a large park corridor of varied uses. The area has two Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recreation sites, Hartman Rocks and Signal Peak, on either side, an observatory on county land and a section of Tomichi Creek running through it.

“Many people use Gunnison as basecamp for recreation, and the only state park in Gunnison County is the Paonia State Park on the other side of Kebler Pass,” said Houck. So establishing a new state park could bring amenities and economic benefits, he said.

The state park designation would bring in things like organized camping, restrooms, RV hookups, the ability to conserve and/or rehabilitate designated lands for protection and educational and research opportunities for Western Colorado University.

“There are good conservation areas, water flows, Gunnison Rising [a new planned community development] will be in that area, and there are archeological histories there,” continued Houck. “The larger picture here is of an Arkansas River-like corridor.”

“This is exploratory”
Commissioner Roland Mason said he is supportive of beginning the research phase, as he had been in previous discussions with Houck and Messner. Commissioner Liz Smith asked what potential counter arguments could be for the project.

Houck emphasized there would be a lot of work to do and boxes to be checked.

Possible hurdles to the project could include sage grouse issues, lower water flows along that section of Tomichi Creek due to rising temperatures and declining precipitation levels affecting fish populations and riparian areas, Federal Aviation Association (FAA) approval for the land under its jurisdiction and land leases with ranchers in the area.

“We don’t know if it will ultimately be the right approach…there’s a lot to explore, a lot to unpack. We have to think about sage grouse, big game, winter and summer habitat,” said Houck.

Commissioners agreed to write a letter of support for the state park and submit it to the CPW Request for Proposals. The Gunnison County Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation (STOR) committee has supported the concept in the past, and a nomination process will begin steps for recreation and wildlife experts to examine the proposal’s overall viability.

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