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Vision set for Big Thompson recreation

City, county splitting costs

LOVELAND – Before the 2013 flood, Viestenz-Smith Mountain Park was a haven of greenery and calm tucked alongside the Big Thompson River.

Now, it is mud and debris.

Glade Park was a prime fishing and tubing spot, filled with people and laughter on sunny days.

Now, it is roped off rocks and downed trees.

The Narrows, the Forks and Sleepy Hollow Parks, popular for fishing and picnicking, also are damaged and closed.

Residents have been wondering how, when and even will Loveland and Larimer County repair these public recreation areas?

The city and county are working together to make a plan on how to handle damaged recreation areas and to look at new opportunities for recreation in the Big Thompson Canyon

Together, they are in the process of an evaluation, which includes gathering public input on what people would like to see in the canyon.

“It’s so important to Loveland citizens,” said Debbie Eley, open lands specialist for Loveland. “It’s the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Most of the (Big Thompson) corridor is in the county, but it really does affect Loveland residents. People from the city visit these places.”

A round table meeting was recently held in Loveland Thursday to take public input.

“We want to bring everyone to the table and hear what everyone wants,” said Zac Wiebe, specialist with the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources.

The Big Thompson Canyon draws anglers, artists, wildlife watchers and even hikers and cyclists year round to enjoy its natural wonders.

The county and city have worked since the 1976 flood to create public access areas. Many of these were pieced together as best officials could after parcels and slivers of land that were unsuitable for rebuilding came up for sale.

After the most recent flood, the county and city are working to create a vision, a proactive plan, for recreation in the canyon.

Looking ahead will benefit everyone and allow the opportunity to work with the Colorado Department of Transportation during permanent repairs of U.S. Highway 34, said Walt Graul, fishing activist and founder of Friends of the Big Thompson.

“The timing is right to get this done before the road work begins,” said Graul. “The potential is there. I’m happy the county has the foresight to look at the design, at what this is going to look like.”

While most of the Big Thompson corridor is in Larimer County, Loveland does own property in the canyon, including the 10 acres that were Viestenz-Smith Mountain Park as well as more than a hundred surrounding acres and property near the water-treatment plant that are not publicly accessible.

So, the city and the county are splitting the cost of the assessment outside a Great Outdoors Colorado grant. Each will pay $15,000, and the grant will cover $37,000, according to information from Larimer County and Loveland.

When finished, the assessment should give both public lands departments a vision for the future of canyon recreation – a document that will help them begin looking for grant money to move the projects off the page.

Recreation opportunities include trails, picnic areas, wildlife viewing and, of course, fishing. The Big Thompson River is one of very few left along the Front Range that are wild trout waters, meaning the fish are wild and not stocked.

Graul described it as a special, popular and unique resource to anglers that, on prime fishing days, fills up with anglers before 9 a.m.

The high-demand catch-and-release area of the river from Waltonia to Estes Park was not hit as badly as lower portions of the river, but the flood did wipe out many fishing access locations and changed the habitat of the river itself.

“It devastated parts of that river, from Drake down,” said Graul. “It’s just been ruined for trout habitat.”

He’s hoping the plan will include ways to restore that habitat and access.

“There’s going to be potential to make things better than they are now,” Graul said.

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