Water, recreation connected in Valley


VALLEY — The San Luis Valley has many assets and one of the biggest is the numerous recreation opportunities that it has to offer. Not only does recreation play a very important part in the economy of the Rio Grande Basin, it also serves as a catalyst for bringing initiatives to improve riparian health, trails that entire communities can utilize, and greater awareness of the need to take care of public lands.

There can be little doubt that in recent years the popularity of recreation opportunities that the Rio Grande Basin offers has greatly increased. Between, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, rafting, ATV’s, camping and much more the choices are certainly plentiful. These opportunities also raise an important question. Where does the balance lie between benefitting residents and visitors and the preservation of natural resources? Many organizations ranging from federal agencies such as the United States Forest Service to locally driven initiatives such as the San Luis Valley Great Outdoors within the Valley are working towards answers to this question. Finding balance is not a simple task

Likely the largest recreation opportunity that the Rio Grande Basin has is the Rio Grande National Forest. With 1.83 million acres, the forest offers a wide array of trails and campgrounds as well as opportunities for all of the major types of outdoor recreation from horseback riding to climbing. There are also plenty of options for the rock and mineral enthusiast as well as plenty of wildlife viewing and hunting options.  While the forest is certainly a valuable resource, there are most definitely challenges that have arisen particularly in the area of forest health. With the changing landscape and drought conditions, this has led to greater susceptibility to harmful events such as spruce beetle infestation and most notably fires such as the West Fork Complex Fire of 2013 and the Spring Fire this year. These drastic alterations of the landscape have seemingly necessitated a new approach to forest management.

As a result, the USFS has recently finished the process of revising the Rio Grande Forest Plan. The intent of this process is to manage the forest in a way that is beneficial to those who utilize it. Additionally, the USFS has recently increased timber sales in order to salvage the timber that is still useful. The need for adaptive management of the forest has become increasingly important because of the drastically altered conditions of the landscape along with the fact that the Rio Grande National Forest also happens to be home to some of the most important water resources that the valley has thus making watershed health critical. The USFS and the Rio Grande Watershed Emergency Action Coordination Team have been working together to protect these resources, recognizing how vital it really is to preserve them and they continue to work towards solutions that are beneficial for all who utilize the forest.

Hunting is very popular in Colorado and the San Luis Valley is certainly no exception. With numerous wildlife species from moose to wild turkeys and grouse, the licenses that are sold provide a large part of the recreation-based income the Rio Grande Basin sees. In 2017, license and pass fees and permits accounted for 54 percent of the total income for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Yet again, water is what allows these animals to survive, without it, this avenue of sport would simply not exist. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has been a participant in the process of the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable as well as the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and continues to be part of the ongoing conversation regarding how to facilitate effective resource management.

Two other very important recreational draws to the Rio Grande Basin are fishing and float trips, particularly on the upper portion of the Rio Grande. With dozens of public and private stretches of the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers, they are angler’s paradise. The most common of the fish species known to the area is the Brown Trout. The Rio Grande and Conejos systems are also home to a Colorado native species of trout known as the Rio Grande Cutthroat. Teams of recreationist and water users are working on winter flow regimes that help keep wet water in the stream by timing reservoir releases that benefit Cutthroat habitat. These cooperative efforts still giving irrigators the water they need and recreationists the water to both fish and float.

Recreation is not only outside city limits but within towns and cities as well. Trails and bike paths are being upgraded and expanded from Del Norte to Alamosa thanks in part to local organizations such as San Luis Valley Great Outdoors. These projects increase opportunities for area residents to get outdoors. This is all part of the SLV GO movement to connect trail systems throughout the Valley and to also keep the areas that they are in as healthy as possible through good management practices.

While the San Luis Valley is a relatively small area in terms of population, there is certainly no shortage of opportunities to enjoy the beautiful scenery that makes the Rio Grande Basin a great place to live. It is also very important that these resources be taken care of which is why so many organizations have taken the time to be involved. The common thread in it all comes back to water, and how we  ensure that this precious commodity is preserved is through the vast array of organizations that are present in the Rio Grande Basin continuing to work together.