Conservation Colorado: The future of the birthplace of Colorado’s whitewater rafting industry

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Sasha Nelson

Through the peaks and canyons of far Northwest Colorado run two rivers, the Green and the Yampa, carving gashes as deep as 2,500 feet into the red sandstone. The untamed rivers with Class III to V rapids captured the interest of explorers like John Wesley Powell, who led the first recorded scientific expedition in 1869, and intrepid reporters from The Denver Post who wrote about their attempt to run the rivers in 1928. The photos and stories of these daring adventures enticed thrill-seekers to journey to what is now Dinosaur National Monument to ride the rivers solely for recreation. According to many, this was the beginning of the whitewater rafting industry in Colorado.

In an arid land where the saying goes that whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting, it didn’t take long for some folks to look at developing our rivers for water storage and large-scale hydroelectric dams. In the early 1950s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation created plans for a 10-dam, billion-dollar Colorado River Storage Project. The project aroused opposition when one of the dams was proposed for Echo Park, in the middle of Dinosaur National Monument.

Historians view the Echo Park Dam controversy as the start of an era of environmental conservation that includes the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Vast areas in Northwest Colorado remain suitable for wilderness and wild and scenic rivers designations. These designations seem to create a great deal of apprehension for a few folks.

My fourth-generation Colorado family tends to favor the “wild” side of our county. Standing up for a free-flowing Yampa and healthy river systems here in Northwest Colorado is in my blood. In the early 1980s, my granddad and then-Craig Mayor Sayde Tayara were in bit of a dust-up. Mayor Tayara supported a scheme to dam the river at Cross Mountain and place a propaganda banner across U.S. Highway 40. My granddad viewed the mayor’s banner as a misuse of public funds. Apparently, the conflict and my granddad’s interaction with Tayara became rather heated. Fortunately, neither the dam nor the U.S. 40 propaganda banner prevailed.

This week, the Colorado Water Congress met in Steamboat Springs to considered critical questions about the future of our water supply. Do we have to dam and develop the Yampa or place further strain on the Green to meet our water needs and grow our regional economy? Should we sell our water in diversions that would send it hundreds of miles across the Rockies?

When we keep parts of our rivers wild and our water in the valley, we are keeping a key attribute of our community whole and allowing our vibrant recreation-based economy to grow. It’s all about encouraging a balance. From whitewater rafting to family floats to river view hiking, biking, tube rentals and shuttle services, we have an abundance of recreational and economic possibilities because we have conserved our water and our land.

You can see the canyons and rivers of Dinosaur National Monument by joining me on one of Conservation Colorado’s Beyond the Bones Tours. I’ll be sure to regale you with more Nelson family lore and discuss how we can protect these areas for future generations while bringing more economic opportunity to Northwest Colorado.

Sasha Nelson is the field organizer for Conservation Colorado.

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