Nighthorse recreation Exhaustive process meant to ensure all points of view are heard

Joy Lujan Enlarge photo

Joy Lujan

Since early November, Durango-area residents have participated in a public discussion of recreation at Lake Nighthorse. Through a multi-step collaborative process, people listened to one another in order to understand each other’s perspectives, issues, ideas and concerns, and then worked together to find shared solutions that took all of those various perspectives into account. It has been no easy task, but through collaboration and dialogue, a community found ways to share Lake Nighthorse.

Lake Nighthorse, a 1,500-surface-acre reservoir, is a Bureau of Reclamation project that is part of a decades-long water rights settlement. Federal funding for recreation was cut out of the authorizing legislation in an amendment in 2000. Because of state budget challenges, Colorado State Parks is unable to fund planning and management of Lake Nighthorse at this time.

Not wanting Durango to miss a rare opportunity, the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District took on the task of exploring possibilities for recreation at Lake Nighthorse. Before public access to the reservoir will be allowed, a recreation master plan must be in place and a recreation management entity must be identified.

The district applied to my program, the National Park Service Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance Program, for help planning. My role has been to provide the process for community members to determine the recreational future of Lake Nighthorse.

From the beginning, it was clear that there is a wide spectrum of passionate views about recreation at Lake Nighthorse. On one end was the sentiment that all user-types should be able to use this public resource – including a full menu of motorized uses. The other side thought the lake should be preserved solely for wildlife and no motorized uses should be allowed. Most people supported motorized use with restrictions.

The grant that paid for the boat ramp now in place at Lake Nighthorse stipulated that gasoline-powered motors will be allowed. Even without that, the strength and breadth of the desires within the community made it apparent that if this was going to be a publicly accepted plan, would have to be developed through a process that brought all sides together to collectively find a solution. That process included difficult and emotionally charged discussions, but people were willing to move beyond the fight over motorized use to find ways to share the lake.

Early steps in the process helped people understand the project, including decisions and commitments already in place. In the next steps, people expressed their concerns about recreation via comment cards, the Web, phone calls, e-mails and at a public forum held in late November. Among the concerns were noise, safety, invasive species, visitor experience, wildlife, wakes, water quality and vandalism.

In December, in a spirit of fairness and inclusion that asked people to keep in mind the full array of desired experiences, participants began to explore whether and how those concerns could be addressed through design and regulatory solutions. All perspectives were present, represented, heard, acknowledged, debated and addressed. Discussion focused on the importance of protecting scenic quality and sensitive natural resources while providing a variety of types of experiences for the public to enjoy.

Those ideas were carried over to a 2-day design workshop in early January where participants worked in diverse groups to develop recommendations for recreation. Participants chose which group they wanted to work with, and a full range of perspectives was represented on each work team. The recommendations that came out of the workshop include seasonal closures to protect wildlife, dedicated spatial zones to separate uses, adoption of Colorado State Parks boating regulations, no commercial facilities, minimal and visually unobtrusive structures and a host of mitigation measures that address other impacts people were most concerned about.

Participants also recommended a modest first phase of recreational amenities. That will give the public access to basic reservoir-related activities including fishing, boating, picnicking, swimming and trails sooner rather than later.

The process is not over. DHM Design in Durango is drafting a report on the community’s recommendations and the people who participated in the workshop will review the report to ensure it accurately represents their recommendations. The report will then be available for public review and comment.

A final draft will be prepared and reviewed by the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the Animas-La Plata Operations, Maintenance and Replacement Association — all of whom have some level of responsibilities tied to the reservoir. Further recommendations may be made to address a handful of lingering concerns and to ensure that the plan is environmentally compatible, economically viable and technically feasible. In some cases, more information is needed before a final recommendation is made, including a study that is being planned regarding noise impacts on neighbors.

This process has not been easy, but it has been open, sensible, collaborative, responsible and fair. People with very different perspectives participated in developing shared recommendations for recreation and I believe the plan emerging will map out a future for Lake Nighthorse that Durango-area residents and visitors will enjoy for many generations to come.

Joy Lujan is community planner with the National Park Service Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance Program. Reach her via e-mail at Joy_Lujan@nps.gov or by phone at (303) 969-2853.