Commissioners’ Corner: More open space for Summit and Grand counties

When so much around us is constantly changing, we’re asked to consider what we should be keeping the same. To us, it always comes back to open space. Our landscape is one of the most beautiful in the country, and through the years, our communities have made countless efforts to preserve and protect these truly unique and scenic natural areas.

It’s not just for environmental reasons — though those are very important too — open space is a significant driver of economic activity, offering locals and tourists alike hiking, boating, fishing, hunting and other outdoor activities. Expanding open space is therefore a constant priority for the future success of our counties.

We’re excited to share a milestone victory toward that goal. After over a decade of cooperative work, the Bureau of Land Management has approved the Blue Valley Land Exchange, a deal netting more publicly-accessible land and millions of dollars worth of recreational and environmental improvements for the Lower Blue Valley, at no cost to taxpayers.

Under the agreement, Grand and Summit county residents will soon enjoy two new recreation areas — the Confluence Recreation Area, at the junction of the Blue and Colorado rivers, and the Green Mountain Recreation Area — with hundreds of acres of open space, miles of walking trails, riverfront picnic and rest areas, permanent takeouts for boaters, improved access roads and parking, conservation projects and more.

Starting with fishing. We know anglers like their familiar spots where they’re sure they can catch that next trophy trout. But as anyone who’s fished the Blue River along Highway 9 knows, much of the walk-in access is neither safe nor doable for many people. With a little adaptation, this exchange will provide much easier access to excellent fishing spots — excellent because with the deal, there will be nearly a mile of Gold Medal fishery restoration at the confluence and 1.5 miles of new access to Gold Medal fishing in Green Mountain Canyon. (Floaters will still be able to get to those previously public areas.)

The Blue River will also be opened up to anglers with disabilities, with several wheelchair accessible fishing platforms built at the Confluence Recreation Area. These improvements will keep the sport attractive for both the most experienced angler and the kid casting their first line.

Other new recreational benefits on the Blue River include two rest stops and permanent takeouts for floaters at Spring Creek Bridge and the Confluence Recreation Area, making kayaking, boating and other floating much more predictable. The Confluence Recreation Area will also have picnic tables and restrooms, perfect for family outings.

Hikers and hunters will be pleased too with the gains in the Lower Blue River Valley. One of the biggest wins out of the exchange is that both Green Mountain and San Toy Mountain are entering the public domain, forever preserving their natural beauty from development. All told, there will be a net gain of over 1,100 acres of upland lands suitable for hiking, hunting and wildlife viewing. Several miles of walking trail, improved roads and two new parking areas will be constructed to ensure those benefits are fully realized.

This deal was the result of many people working together to get the best outcome for our communities. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper helped advocate for us in Washington. Meanwhile, local environmental and outdoors groups like Friends of the Lower Blue River, Colorado Whitewater Association, American Whitewater Association, the Colorado Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited and Blue Valley Sportsmen’s Club have been essential in setting our priorities.

All of the recreational and environmental improvements are being fully funded by Blue Valley Ranch, which is also establishing an endowment for long-term maintenance of the recreational facilities. The ranch has been a neighbor to our communities for nearly 30 years and has a great track record of environmental stewardship. Even without the added investments, projected to be upwards of $3 million, the BLM determined the value of the land swapped was in the public interest at face value.

This exchange protects an incredible amount of our most cherished open spaces for future generations — so our kids can continue seeing these lands as they are now, and eventually their kids will too.

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