Plans to limit recreation at Browns Park withdrawn

Rafters, campers can continue to use wildlife refuge

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Last year, the refuge manager, Jerry Rodriguez, announced plans to study the compatibility of recreational uses, such as camping and rafting, with the refuge's main goal of providing habitat for migratory birds. But those plans have been placed on hold due to budget challenges in the agency.

"It's been placed on the back burner for now. We'll use most of our energy to focus on biological issues and divert our attention to wildlife and put recreation on a lower priority," Rodriguez said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service fiscal year ends in October, and Rodriguez said nothing would happen before then. He said it's most likely that officials won't revisit the issue for a year or two.

When Rodriguez announced his intentions to conduct the study, the buzz among outdoor enthusiasts and local government officials was that access to an eight-mile stretch of the Green River inside the Refuge would be closed and two campgrounds would be shut down.

Former Dinosaur Mayor Richard Blakley was happy to hear the plans had been tabled.

"That's fantastic. ... A lot of rafters come through here and eat and stay in motels," Blakley said. He guessed 10 or 15 vehicles full of rafters pass through the town each week in the summer, and Dinosaur's economy would be negatively impacted if Fish and Wildlife closed the Refuge section of the Green River.

"We're pleased this decision has been made for the time being ... but we're also concerned this may be a continuing thing," said Melanie Morrison, owner of River Runners, a Utah company that shuttles rafters along the Green River.

Morrison said she was concerned that if the government closed a section of the Green River here, it would set a precedent for limiting or closing river access across the country. She added that most river rafters are environmentally conscientious people who would not disturb wildlife.

"It's just the nature of the sport. Part of the experience is seeing sheep, elk and deer along the way," Morrison said.

After a site visit in February, Fish and Wildlife Mountain Prairie Region Director Rick Coleman decided the wildlife refuge should focus on biology and conservation. Public use of the land was not set as a high priority, said Matt Kales of the Fish and Wildlife regional office in Lakewood.

Fish and Wildlife's current budgetary challenges influenced that decision heavily, Kales said. The Fish and Wildlife budget has suffered as the federal government diverts funds to national security and military funding.

Rodriguez said the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act of 1997 gives refuges a clear and concise mission: to protect wildlife. But the act also requires that the implementation plan of that mission be compatible with hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and education, interpretation and photography.

If other uses are deemed incompatible with the mission of refuges, then Fish and Wildlife can limit or prohibit them on any or all parts of a refuge, Kales said.

The refuge's current plan is to funnel most of its resources into water management, Rodriguez said. Due to the drought, water levels in the refuge's wetlands have been low, forcing management to pump water from the river to the wetlands.

Refuge management rotates the refuge's seven wetlands, maintaining five quality wetlands that provide valuable habitat to water fowl, while two wetlands remain dry.

Wetlands are allowed to dry out every six to eight years. For a time they become important feeding grounds for big game, then the dry brush is controlled through prescribed burns.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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