Has Durango Sold Its River, And Its Soul, To Recreation?

Several months ago, an old friend and sometime source contacted me with a tip on a big local story going down here in Durango, with statewide and even national implications. I had been looking around the immediate region for something into which I could dig my investigative reporting teeth. This might be it. A week or so later, we met in the local coffee shop, its walls decorated by mountain bikes hanging like fine art with prices to match. At a table next to us, a compact, overly-tanned woman with biceps like tennis balls spoke sternly to another woman—a personal trainer berating her client. My friend leaned across the table and gave me the scoop:

The City is building a park. On the river. With a boat ramp.

I waited for the punchline, for the details of how some developer was bribing city officials to get the go-ahead to turn the park into a condo complex and oil field with a McDonald's attached. None arrived. Who, I thought, could have a problem with a park? Plenty of folks, it turns out. Over the next several weeks I would be contacted by a handful of others who strongly oppose the City's park plans, and the public comment process regarding it has turned into a bit of a s*&t storm. To be clear, these aren't some sort of Agenda 21, anti-public land nut jobs who oppose all parks, they just don't like some of the details of this particular one.

As upsetting to opponents as the development itself is what it will bring: More of the inner-tubing, paddle-boarding, river-rafting, beach-partying masses that have already colonized large swaths of the river during the warmer months of the year. But it's also what the development represents. In its quest to be an amenity-rich, recreation-based town rather than the extraction based one it once was, critics say, Durango has finally gone too far.

The problem park—its name is Oxbow Preserve—consists of 44 acres of land just north of this town of 15,000 people. The City acquired the land from private owners back in 2012 with the help of $400,000 in statewide lottery funds that are doled out for such things. Generally speaking, the land acquisition itself wasn't controversial: It would preserve a nice stretch of the river as open space with public access, benefit wildlife and allow the City to stretch the riverside bike path further afield.

After acquiring the land, the City announced that it would keep its hands off 38 acres, leaving it as open space and wildlife habitat. No worries there. Yet the remaining six acres would be developed as a park, with not only the bike path going through, but also a driveway, parking lot, restrooms and a boat ramp, accessible to commercial outfitters. This development—the ramp in particular—is what's fueling the fight.

The Animas River has always been critical to this southwest Colorado town. Its cold waters come crashing violently out of the narrow, v-shaped gorge that slices through the San Juan Mountains. When it hits the flat-as-glass bottom of the glacially-carved Animas Valley, it slows suddenly, and its path becomes a lazy meander, almost twisting around and meeting itself at times. The sandy banks here are so soft that ranchers used to line them with crushed, old cars to prevent erosion.

At the south end of the upper valley, Durango (and its predecessor, Animas City) sprang up on glacial deposits in the 1870s and 80s, so that the river now runs along the length of town like a scoliotic spine. Residences and commercial buildings generally were set back from the river, and industrial facilities put on its banks to make it easier to use the river as trash can and sewer. A power plant, a sawmill, some sort of pet food processing facility and, most notably, a massive smelter all sat next to the river. During Durango's early years, the smelter blanketed the town with nasty smoke, dumping its slag on the river's banks. Later, the facility was converted to process uranium, and provided material for the Manhattan Project.

By the time I was a kid here, most of that stuff had stopped operating, but the remains remained. The radioactive uranium tailings pile loomed over the river, just waiting for a massive flood to undercut it, and a lot of homes and sidewalks had been built using the tailings. On gusty days, its fine, poisonous dust lifted up from the pile and drifted over town whenever a big breeze came up. The power plant's hulking metal skeleton stood idle, but intact, and I think the sawmill was still running. Occasionally, the river ran the color of rotten mustard, thanks to a busted tailings pond dam at one of the hardrock mines up near Silverton.

For us kids, the river was nothing but a giant playground, despite whatever garbage and pollution it carried. We spent hours there, wading, swimming, fishing and chasing minnows. We'd dislodge old cottonwoods that had drifted down from the valley, drag them into the current, and grip them with our skinny legs, making it maybe 20 yards before the half-submerged log spun, bucking us into the icy waters. My brother, a trout-whisperer of sorts, reeled in a half-dozen fish daily, feeding the family all summer long. Some of the land we traversed was surely private, but no one seemed to care, least of all us. For the most part, we had the length of the river to ourselves. There was little to no commercial rafting. High school and college kids headed to the reservoirs in the region to party by the water. Fly fishing had yet to catch on as a trendy sport. Even tubers were few and far between.

In the late 1970s, my dad was elected to the City Council as part of a group of locals working to transform the city from its extractive industry roots to a new economy. Though they may not have used the terminology at the time, they were planting the seeds to grow the town into one with an economy based on amenities—namely the relatively unscathed landscape, the open space, the safe and somewhat healthy community and the river—rather than on minerals, coal, timber, ranching and oil and gas. That council passed a strict sign code, planted a lot of trees, upgraded infrastructure and even created a bus system.

Most exciting of all to me were the plans for the river. One day my father brought home an architectural-type drawing of the entire river through town. In this fantasy drawing, bike paths and parks lined both sides of the river; the gas stations and such had been replaced by restaurants or cafes with patios looking over the water, the power plant transformed into a community center. The community, in other words, would finally give the river the respect it deserved.

It took a while, but over the last 30 years and more, those seeds took root, grew up and bore fruit by the bushelful. The uranium pile's been moved, buried, capped, replaced by a dog park. The power plant is now a museum. Where the old sawmill sat there is now a hospital and urbane, loft-style apartments, the residents of which can hop on their bikes and ride the six-mile bike path that skirts the river all through town, without ever crossing vehicle traffic (and it's being extended). It passes through parks and past a big, often crowded recreation center, also next to the river. These developments are representative of the larger cultural, economic and physical shifts that have happened across the community.

Those big picture changes are also evident in the way the river is used. Commercial river rafting got going here in the early 1980s, and has since grown into a decent-sized chunk of the local tourism trade. Back in 1990, commercial outfitters ferried some 10,000 folks down the town run. By 2005, the peak year so far, that had jumped to 52,000. In 2012—a low water year—38,000 paid to raft the river, making a $12 million economic impact on the community, according to a Colorado Rivers Outfitters Association Report.

At least as many people float the river without guides, including private rafters, kayakers, paddle boarders and inner-tubers. Drought actually draws more of these users, since the river is safer at low levels.

Around the river access points, cars crowd the streets on summer days and inner-tube- and Pabst Blue Ribbon-hefting, scantily-clad youngsters wander around lackadaisically among the exhaust-belching rafting company buses, crammed to the gills with tourists getting the safety talk while wearing oversized, bright-orange life jackets. Downriver, a nice slow-moving section morphs into a party zone, replete with blaring sound systems.

A large chunk of opposition to the Oxbow park plans—particularly the commercial boat ramp and developed parking lot—comes from nearby property owners, worried that the in-town riverside zoo will simply migrate upstream to their backyards. But the resistance is not all rooted in NIMBYism. Also of concern are the impacts the floating and beach-going masses will have on wildlife—the park is near a pair of great blue heron rookeries, elk habitat and bald eagle fishing areas. Still others see the inclusion of a commercial boat ramp as a subsidy for private enterprise, and as a violation of the terms of the state funds that paid for the parcel of land. The developed park has its supporters, too: Commercial river rafters would be able to stretch out their town run, as well as the rafting season (the sandy upper reaches of the river are navigable even in very low water). And they contribute to the economy—many of my friends paid their way through college and beyond as river guides.

I suspect that these details will be ironed out and partially solved with compromises in coming months. But I'm also sure that the bigger picture fight, in which open space is pitted against recreation, and a tourism economy butts up against the peace and quiet of residents, will persevere. It's the type of debate that I suspect many communities envy. After all, it's somewhat luxurious, maybe even decadent, to be able to have a community-wide fight over whether a park has a boat ramp or not, isn't it? For me, there's a special sort of irony in it all. Over the past 30 years, the river has morphed into a hybrid of the rule-free playground my friends and I cherished, and the community green space my father and his colleagues had envisioned.

"As Durango has become a destination for tourists and for those seeking a change in lifestyle," wrote David Wegner, in his comments on the park plan, "the value of the Animas River increased. In a way, we are a victim of our success."

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.