Arkansas Headwaters area flourishing after contentious beginning
SALIDA — It seems warring is a history that repeats itself in the Upper Arkansas River Valley.
In 1879 railroad companies were going to battle over who would be the first to lay track through the Royal Gorge canyon. It became so heated that shots were exchanged among the opposing camps.
Later, it would be the rafters and the fishermen who would butt heads like bighorn rams vying for dominance. At issue in the early 1990s was the flow of water in the Arkansas River.
Rafters wanted to have extra water for the late-season boating and fishermen felt the higher water flow was a detriment for the fish just when trout needed to catch a break from fighting the summer waves.
Eventually, the feud was settled. Rafters get their extra water until Aug. 15 each year and anglers get water releases in the winter months should the level drop to dangerous lows endangering fish.
At the tenuous center of the boat and hook controversy was an unlikely group of government regulators who dreamed it was possible that someday everyone would get along. After all, rafting can bring a neat $60 million chunk of change to the valley coffers and anglers spend plenty as well.
When the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area was officially formed 25 years ago this coming October, work was just beginning. Countless public meetings and lawsuits pushed patience on both sides, yet the recreation area endures as one of the few federal and state partnerships in existence nationwide.
The partners have made the first 150-mile stretch of the Arkansas River corridor not only the most rafted river in the nation, but a gold medal fishing ground.
Besides the breathtaking views and some of Mother Nature’s finest canyon rock wall work, the recreation area has grown to include the kind of amenities that make people want to stop and take it all in.
From Leadville to Lake Pueblo, the recreation area spans four counties. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has teamed up with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to offer a boatload of improvements from campgrounds and boating ramps to restrooms and picnic grounds.
All totaled there are 42 sites along the corridor, according to Rob White, Arkansas Headwaters manager for CPW.
“One of the greatest accomplishments to date regarding the creation of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area has been the acquisition and development of recreation sites along the Arkansas River corridor that provide invaluable public access for both whitewater boating and angling,” White said. “We try to strike a balance in the development of our recreation sites and with the management of the natural resources, including water, so that whitewater boaters, anglers and all of our visitors can enjoy the recreation area.”
The balance between man and nature is evident. Each recreation site is so well cared for a visitor would be hard pressed to find a gum wrapper littering the ground.
“We continue to work on improvements to the natural resources found throughout the river corridor and the riparian areas are in better condition then they have been in a long time,” said John Nahomenuk, River Manager for the BLM. “We are an integral tie that brings together and helps strengthen the communities in the river valley.”
White and Nahomenuk work together, often identifying potential land acquisitions with willing sellers and then find the money to buy the land. The Colorado Lottery has been instrumental in making many of the improvements a reality by awarding grants that have helped convert private property parcels into public playgrounds.
Boaters and anglers are not the park’s only users. Gold panning, riverside picnics and climbing are among the reasons people make it a destination.
Many visitors come to the Bighorn Sheep Canyon between Salida and Canon City in hopes of spotting the state animal. The sheep are so expertly camouflaged it takes movement or a flash of their white rear ends to actually spot them.
White and Nahomenuk often run ideas by the citizen’s task force to get input from a variety of the park’s stewards from boaters and anglers to ranchers and environmentalists.
It’s nice when everyone can agree. Just don’t bring up New York artist Christo’s Over the River artwork planned for a two-week display along the stretch of river between Salida and Canon City or you could see the warring start to brew all over again.