Arkansas River recreation area turns 20
November 7, 2009
SALIDA, Colo. – John Nahomenuk went to work for the Bureau of Land Management in 1988 and was given the unenviable task of trying to keep peace between commercial and private rafters.
The sport was just becoming popular, and with limited access the river was getting crowded. The BLM issued permits, when people bothered to obtain them.
“It was pretty vicious then,” Nahomenuk recalled recently. “I posted an orange sign on the beach (at Hecla Junction, north of Salida) that gave three-quarters to commercial and one-quarter to private. I think the sign lasted about 40 minutes.”
Nahomenuk, as much as anyone, is glad the state formed the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area a year later. In fact, he led a gathering of about 100 people in singing “Happy Birthday to Us” as the park turned 20 late last month.
The recreation area stretches 148 miles along the Arkansas River from Lake County to Lake Pueblo and now includes a couple of dozen launch sites along the way. There are restrooms, improved access from U.S. 50 and far fewer hurt feelings. Rafters, kayakers, fishermen, rock climbers, photographers and wildlife watchers have learned to share the canyon. “The most important thing we’ve done is the partnerships we’ve formed,” said Rose Bayless, who has worked for the recreation area since it was created in 1989 in an agreement that allowed the BLM to maintain ownership, but put management in the hands of Colorado State Parks. “In this way, we can preserve the natural resources and invite people to use the river.”
Bayless was one of only two employees, along with park manager Steve Reese, in 1989. In its first year, the recreation area served fewer than 300,000 people. In 2009, it logged 737,000 visitors and now has nine employees, Dean Winstanley, state parks director, said.
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“This is one of the jewels of our entire park system … It’s unique in many ways,” Winstanley said. “We’re extremely proud of our partnerships. We still consider it the gold standard among our state parks.”
Besides the BLM, State Parks works with the Division of Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation and local agencies to manage the river playground.
A voluntary agreement with water users reached in 1991 keeps water in the river until mid-August for rafters and at other times of year for fish. The flows depend on the cooperation of water rights holders to release water from reservoirs at the right time. There is also a fee structure that allows some water to be purchased to augment flows.
“It’s not only a river and a valley, but a partnership,” said Anna Maria Burden, BLM associate state director. “Before we created the state park there were no campgrounds, restrooms or access to the Arkansas River.”
There is also a huge economic benefit from the recreation area.
Corona Research of Denver studied how much money visitors to all state parks spent through surveys detailing how much each carload spent within a 50-mile radius of the destination.
Arkansas Headwaters ranked second among 42 state parks, generating $55 million per year, Winstanley said.
Lake Pueblo ranked first, generating $98 million for the area economy.
The financial statement wasn’t lost on locals.
“In the 1970s, a friend wanted to start a raft business. I said, ‘What are you, crazy?'” said Chaffee County Commissioner Tim Glenn, a lifelong resident. “We can all learn from our mistakes.”
Growing up in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Glenn remembers Salida as a railroad town, and mostly industrial in its business structure. When hard times hit in the 1980s, recreation moved in to fill the void.
“Where the AHRA headquarters is, was a Volkswagen junkyard,” Glenn said. “The river was something you pulled water out of for irrigation and dumped cars in to stop erosion.”
In the last decade, Salida has built a boat course just below its downtown area and obtained a state water right to keep it flowing against future claims to exchange water upstream.
“We hope we never have to use it, but it’s there if we have to,” Glenn said. “It has value to our economy.”
“The river is the heart of the city,” added Salida Mayor Chuck Rose. Many Salidans can recall being told not to eat fish caught below the city in years past. Now, water quality has improved, thanks in large part to the state recreation area’s protection. “You can maintain the river, play in the river and eat the fish.”
Andy Nienas, owner of the largest rafting companies on the Arkansas River, said the state structure has created the opportunity to discuss problems along the river and reach compromises that satisfy most of those who use the river. Advisory committees have been formed to work out problems.
“We’ve brainstormed through many challenges,” Nienas said. “As we think forward, the river is so much more than all of us combined.”
There are a total of 9,000 acres in the park, and the public investment is immense, said Park Manager Rob White.
“In terms of value, it actually shocked me,” White said, pointing to campgrounds, launching areas, road construction to allow turnouts and other features of the park. “The value is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. We have the good fortune to be the stewards of this.”