Big Thompson updates
May 25, 2008
Below is the column written by Loveland Reporter-Herald reporter Dennis Smith on April 24, 2008. Below this column you will find the letter written by Colorado Wildlife Federation on May 20, 2008 to Larimer County officials.
April 24, 2008
Dennis E. Smith
It never fails to amaze me how often you can overlook a thing that’s right beneath your nose, until someone - quite often a complete stranger - points it out to you.
I was reminded of that nagging peculiarity again this month when Nick Williams invited me to fish a stretch of the Big Thompson River I’d probably driven by a thousand times in the last thirty years, but had never bothered to fish because I’d always assumed it was private property. Making assumptions is another flawed but human characteristic. We all know its dangers.
The section we fished that day was on a narrow sliver of county land about 15 miles up the canyon. Classic trout water rambled between pine and aspen-studded banks, speckled here and there with summer cabins and colorful mountain retreats. We met none of the homeowners that day, but Williams said those he’d encountered in the past were warm and friendly types who often waved at him from their decks and asked if he was “catching any.” He discovered the little ribbon of public land some years ago while pondering a government map that delineated public from private properties. Interestingly, the property appears to be one of those now at risk of being sold by the Larimer Department of Parks, though it’s hard to tell for certain.
Which brings me to this: All of the recent meetings surrounding the sale of public properties on the Big T may very well be on the up-and-up, but one gets the sense the Parks department is trying to cully the public into believing they're doing us all a favor by retaining angling access on seven river bottom properties when they, themselves, originally categorized more than sixty of them as having "high recreational value.”
There’s no question anglers are immensely grateful for those seven concessions, but we should remind the county they aren’t “giving” us anything we don’t already own. Those properties were purchased on behalf of the public with funds provided by a federal agency specifically for their high recreational values - read angling access - and were to remain in the public trust forever. That was the Parks Department’s commitment - in writing - to the Federal Conservation Land and Water Fund, and by inference, the citizens of Larimer County and everyone else who fishes the Big T. Retaining as many of them as possible should be their highest priority.
But the Parks Department violated its public trust and seriously jeopardized whatever confidence the public may have had in them when they quietly transferred those recreational values from the Big T properties to the River Bluffs birding trail project near Windsor and kept it hush-hush - presumably to divest themselves of the federal obligation to maintain the Big T properties in perpetuity. Or to put it another way - so they could sell them to finance other projects.
Whether that was intentional or just poor judgment is irrelevant at this point, but it certainly wasn’t Kosher, and it did nothing to inspire faith in our county leadership. When asked for copies of the documents authorizing the transfers, Parks staff was reluctant or unable to produce them, making it necessary to file Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) and Federal Open Information Act to obtain them.
This only served to heighten public suspicions. As did the selective meetings and mailing lists catering to prospective property buyers on the county’s web site while seemingly excluding angler interests. Add to this the recent discovery that the Chairman of the Parks Advisory Board has been withholding citizen e-mails regarding the matter from the rest of the board, claiming such e-mails addressed to her are “private.” Really? That seems odd, too, in view of language on the county’s website indicating e-mails addressed to officials are open public records unless otherwise requested. Besides, wouldn’t one just naturally assume a board chairman has a responsibility to make absolutely certain board members are informed of the public’s written concerns? See? It’s best not to assume.
The collective result of all this bureaucratic hide-and-seek is divisive and destructive to good public relations. If the Park’s staff is sincere about protecting angling access on the Big T for generations to come, they need only retain those sixty parcels they originally categorized as having high recreational values in their original agreement with the public and restore those values - in perpetuity - so we’ll never have to worry about this happening again. Otherwise, we can probably assume that it will.
Larimer County Manager
200 W Oak Street
P.O. Box 1190
Fort Collins, Colorado 80522-1190
Dear Mr. Lancaster:
Good morning. On behalf of the Colorado Wildlife Federation I am submitting the following comments and recommendations with respect to those Colorado anglers and other citizens who use our public lands. We believe strongly that all government entities should do everything practical to maintain public access areas under their control. In this particular situation the areas in question are best described as “angler access” areas. As the population of Colorado and its visitors continue to grow, the value of such public areas and public access to those areas also increase. It is safe to say that there are no new streams being made in Colorado these days. Further, the places where families with their kids can stop and skip a rock, have a quick picnic or where anglers can access fishable waters are at greater risk of being lost each and every day. With that said, we offer the following.
Regarding the Action Plan for the Big Thompson Surplus Properties that was approved by the County Commissioners in November, 2005, the County webpage contains the following: “…because information may change as we go through this process, the plan could change as well.” We would like to illustrate how we think things have changed and would like to recommend a change in the process. Specifically, Gary Buffington has indicated that the process has actually been ongoing for more than 4 years and expects it to continue for another 3-5 years. We believe this protracted process is not necessary for some of the basic decisions and is certainly not in the best interests of the County or its constituents. Please allow me to explain.
In 2005, at a very early stage of the process, a recommendation was submitted by current Parks Advisory Board member Tom Miller. The recommendation was to retain 11 sites as fishing access areas; subsequently one other area was added for a total of 12. This recommendation has been endorsed by many organizations and anglers. In fact, the Board has received substantial, sustained input from the public urging it to retain all reasonable fishing access areas, as was the original County commitment when it acquired these areas in 1977. This input has included many Larimer County residents, as well as statewide organizations, and even one national organization. Certainly, this strong reaction was not anticipated when the original plan was adopted. The Board’s response to the input has been to only recommend retention of 7 fishing access areas, including one managed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Because of the reluctance to respond more positively to the angling and other outdoor interests, the County has become the focus of substantial negative publicity. For example, 3 highly critical articles have appeared in the Loveland paper and 2 in the Denver Post. We suggest that the longer this issue remains unresolved, the more the negative perception of the County will build with the media and the County’s constituents. In fact, dragging out the basic decisions will likely prove to be very counter-productive for all concerned.
There is no reason not to make the needed basic decisions within the next 2-3 months. The Parks Advisory Board has already received substantial input as previously described. The Board even took a field trip on April 18 to see the sites for themselves. It will soon become very inefficient to need to re-educate new Board members and County Commissioners. Even Board member Tom Miller’s term expires this June.
Bearing in mind the above points, we respectfully request that you meet with your Board and staff and develop a plan in which the basic decisions on what parcels will be recommended for retention can be made in the next 2-3 months. This process should include articulating why any suggested angling access parcels are not to be retained. Once these key decisions are made the process of actually disposing of the remaining areas may well take an understandable prolonged timeframe.
If there is deemed to be a need for further input to make these decisions, we suggest that you consider convening a group of interested parties as has already been suggested by more than one group. We would be happy to participate. This would be far preferable to a process that continues to drag out over several more years and requires all involved to attend multiple meetings, and new Board members, etc to be re-educated.
Thanks in advance for consideration of the recommendations in this letter. This letter does represent the groups and entities listed below. Individuals have not been listed, although many also have endorsed this letter. We would appreciate a timely response from you.
John Smeltzer, Chairman
Colorado Wildlife Federation
Loveland Fishing Club
Kent Ingram, Chair – Colorado Sportsman’s Advisory Group
Federation of Fly Fishers
Brian Chavet – Elkhorn Fly Rods
cc: County Commissioners
Parks Advisory Board
1410 Grant Street, Suite C-313, Denver, Colorado 80203 (303) 987-0400x1 Fax (303) 987-0200