Eagle County, Colorado
Eagle and Upper Colorado Rivers
Over the last decade, gateway communities have realized that protecting and restoring their local river encourages recreation, connects the community to the river and creates an economic engine for the region. To illustrate the benefits communities have discovered by protecting and restoring local rivers, American Rivers developed a series of case studies highlighting gateway communities and how they have benefited from local river and land conservation.
Recreation has always been a staple for Eagle County. Traditionally known for winter activities, Eagle County has more recently become recognized as a world-class summer recreation destination for fishing, boating, mountain biking, golf, and hiking, especially in the down-valley communities of Eagle and Gypsum. Eagle County and local partners have helped drive this momentum by protecting and restoring the main waterways that flow through the heart of Eagle County — the Eagle and Upper Colorado Rivers.
Communities in Eagle County are committed to recreation, agriculture, and a strong sense of place. Tall peaks in the Gore and Sawatch Ranges lend their melting snow to Eagle County’s rivers. From skiing, fishing, and paddling to drinking water and agriculture, water flowing through the Eagle and Upper Colorado Rivers and their tributaries are the life force of Eagle County. Irrigated ranch land carpets the valley floor, framed by mountain forests. This rich landscape drew settlers to the area with ample opportunities for farming, ranching, and mineral extraction.
Until recently, populations in Eagle County were fairly small. Communities established themselves near critical natural resources . Down valley towns like Eagle (6,500 people), Gypsum (6,400 people) and unincorporated communities like Dotsero, and those along the Colorado River Road like Burns, McCoy and Bond continue to rely on agricultural sustenance.
With the recent influx of new recreational amenities “down valley” from Vail, these communities are growing a more diverse tourism economy. Residents, as well as visitors, understand how critical rivers and other recreational opportunities are to the wellbeing of the County, towns and their residents.
Demonstrating the conservation commitment of the County and its citizens, in 2002 a county-wide Open Space levy was passed, creating a dedicated source of funding through a small property tax. With this levy, Eagle County’s Open Space Program (ECOS) was also created. ECOS works with local partners toward their goal of acquiring and protecting important land parcels, increasing public access for recreation, and improving wildlife habitat. Past funds from this fund allowed for permanent protection of valuable landscapes, including working agricultural lands and river corridors, while improving recreational amenities such as boat launches and picnic areas.
The County, working with local partners like the Eagle Valley Land Trust and private landowners, acquired and improved several parcels further down-valley where access to recreation was limited, including land along both the Eagle and Upper Colorado Rivers. Seeing firsthand the contribution protected land makes to local economies, residents understand the benefits of conserved land and improved recreation, and hopefully will continue efforts to expand this program in the future..
Another conservation leader in the county, the Eagle River Watershed Council (ERWC) is heading an initiative to restore habitat along popular stretches of the river corridor, ensuring river health and intact scenic views. Projects along the Eagle River, including along river habitat in Edwards, where ERWC removed debris, restored river banks, and replanted native plants, are highly visible from I-70 and Highway 6 and other local thru-ways.
“The Eagle River Watershed Council has been successful in protecting and restoring miles of streams in our watershed with the help of our community through hours of volunteering. These community members don’t just recreate in our streams, they put their time into keeping them healthy,” says Holly Loff, Executive Director, Eagle River Watershed Council.
These projects show how a coalition of partners can restore degraded reaches of river and highlight a better understanding of how trash affects local rivers and streams. These activities connect the community to the river while educating residents and visitors about the health of the watershed.
Transformation to a Popular Outdoor Recreation Destination
Recreation in lower valley towns like Eagle and Gypsum, and unincorporated communities along rivers has grown tremendously. Expanded access on the upper Colorado River at State Bridge, Dotsero, Catamount, Horse Creek and Two Bridges, as well as the Eagle at Duck Pond, provide critical put-in and take-out points for river enthusiasts of all stripes.
Eagle County’s EcoTrail, a hard surface bike path connecting upper and lower reaches of the county, courses along the Eagle River and links many protected tracts of land. Once overlooked towns along the Eagle and upper Colorado now experience an influx of tourists year-round, where more rafts and kayaks are seen on cars and trailers.
The secret is out and the Eagle and Upper Colorado Rivers in Eagle County are now frequently enjoyed by a wide variety of fun junkies. The Bureau of Land Management reported the number of user days in 2015 on the upper Colorado at 87,000, up from 65,000 the previous summer. It’s not just private trips that have increased, outfitters have also seen a large increase.
New river access points and public easements have made a tremendous difference in the economic benefits for the local communities. A 2014 study by the Colorado River Outfitters Association reported 2,032 user days on the Eagle River in 2014 with an economic impact of $645,099. Additionally, the non-profit group Protect the Flows found that Colorado as a whole benefits from the Colorado River and its tributaries to the tune of $9.6 billion.
“Our community has a strong connection to our local rivers. Everyone here understands that the Eagle and Upper Colorado Rivers and Gore Creek are major draws for tourists and therefore have a huge economic impact on the community. But our rivers aren’t just about economics, our community enjoys the beauty, wildlife, and recreational opportunities provided by our streams themselves — and is why many of us live here,” says Holly Loff.
The Town of Eagle recently passed a sales tax increase to help further develop a riverfront park, generating approximately $375,000 annually, raising nearly $4.5 million over the 20-year authorization period — a boon for the town and health of the river.
Eagle and Gypsum, as well as Eagle County and local partners, have done a terrific job of creating an environment for recreational users to enjoy a day on the river. Protecting and restoring the Upper Colorado and Eagle Rivers to improve recreation and enhance ecotourism will be a priority for years to come, and provide a cornerstone for sustainable economic growth that benefits both locals and the state for years to come.