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In an overwhelming vote of support, that included several findings and a few conditions, the Chaffee County Planning Commissioners approved the draft of the county’s Outdoor Recreation Management Plan during their Tues. June 29 regular meeting. The plan is now recommended to the Board of County Commissioners for review and final approval.

The proposed management plan has received significant public comments since the draft was introduced, both for and against the plan. “Some of the concerns might stem from maybe an incomplete understanding of what this seeks to accomplish and has the authority to accomplish,” said Planning Commission Chair Anderson Horne.

The plan is the result of 29 months of meetings, input, drafts, and adjustments; a collaborative effort of federal and state agencies, organizations, and community individuals working in concert with the Chaffee Recreation Council. The effort stretches all the way back to the formation of Envision Chaffee County. More than 70 groups have been represented at the session, which have often had close to 100 people in attendance.

Colorado Bighorn sheep. Image courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife

“Our landscape and our wildlife are foundational to our quality of life. Over the past last months, we have been seeing tremendous change,” said Chaffee Board of County Commissioner Chair Greg Felt. “This is an opportunity for shared stewardship — it’s being embraced by the land agencies, our local area and citizen groups, and by the governor’s recent executive order.”

“It is as much a representation of our community values — outside of the box thinking, worked across disciplines as it is a data-driven approach,” added Felt, who was there representing the BoCC’s role on the Recreation Council. “This is a living plan… it’s plan, do, adjust, repeat….”

He pointed out that the landscape of this plan, which is regulatory, personal, and human, entertaining ideas from across the spectrum, is not new to this county. “This is how we built the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Program 30 years ago, and the voluntary [river] flow program,” adding later that “this isn’t off the rails, it’s out of the box – the time frame is short.”

ATV riders. Photo by Elievan Junior for Unsplash.

The overriding goal  — the reason the outdoor recreation plan has been drafted is this: “Our forest, waters and wildlife are our health and in balance with outdoor recreation.”

The work sessions came back with some 120 ideas, and they prioritized 30 objectives to take back to the community. Then strategic action planning teams held dozens of meetings on the action plans. The draft came together in May, 2021, then it was offered out to the municipalities for community comment, complete with a website which some 3,000 people have viewed. Hundreds of comments have been logged.

Needless to say, those comments are all over the place, from people supporting wildlife to those who want their personal experiences in the outdoors protected (which some believe may be behind the 65 percent decline in wildlife activity in the county). It’s a reality that seems to indicate the need for a best practices balance between those experiences and wildlife.

“This is a document and a plan that CPW  is really excited about said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Senior Wildlife Manager Jamin Griggs. “We’re even more excited about the process that went into it. For so long we’ve talked with our fellow agencies on how to work on these issues proactively and on a landscape scale….. it used to be on a project-by-project basis.  This is landscape scale and across jurisdictional boundaries… it’s a cool thing.”

“We know we are seeing a huge influx of people into Colorado and onto public lands,” he added. “The cost of doing nothing is going to be huge … we have to plan.”

“If anyone has any concerns about this, go back through the historical record 12-15 years. This validates what we’ve been hearing from groups, longtimers, newcomers, a bit of truthing that comes out of all that,” said Commissioner Keith Baker. “This mirrors the roundtable…a focus on clean air, clean water, land staying in ag production. We carried that through in the Browns Resource Mgmt  Plan and since then we’ve gotten further validation.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has created wildlife habitat maps of 40 different species in Chaffee County, that can be used to identify sensitive habitat areas in the county. Last year the BLM put out a state wildlife list for purposes of impact planning. Its leaders know that recreational activity displaces wildlife; increasing behavior changes, and intensifying the impacts on their summer range.

Public comment regarding the plan was primarily positive, with representatives from both ends of the county reinforcing the need to move quickly. Others pointed out that this plan is intended to interface with and overlap other plans, such as the county’s multi-modal transportation plan.

Chad Hixon said he was concerned that there might be blow-back on the motorized community and the creation of some sort of bureaucracy. He encouraged the Planning Commission to consider maintaining a multi-user experience.

Others pointed out the continuing growth, even during the pandemic: Alan Robinson presented some alarming stats: 26 percent increase in street traffic in the towns, a rising number of overnight campers, and ATV use up 86 percent in just one year.  The number of overnight campers in the Four Mile area has tripled in just one decade.

In the Browns Creek area, Chuck Cichowitz, with 38 years of backcountry recreation leadership experience here and in Gunnison and Leadville, said he is witnessing phenomenal changes in the backcountry. “Two things are evident in the plan – there is already a tremendous amount of community support. And second, as a result of our survey work, the value of environmental sustainability – we’re motivated to preserve this for the next generation.”

The county is a month into another season of massive visitation. The Chaffee Recreational Council members who were present urged the Planning Commission not to delay, noting that there are consequences to wildlife, and the county’s recreational experiences already. They referred to the plan as “a once-in-a-generation funding opportunity”, pointing out that it is time to leverage this plan and our Chaffee Common Ground funding.