Crested Butte, CO - Alleged disruption to a Heron Rookery and concerned private landowners have led to a "Voluntary Closure" of the Slate River from the Gunsight Bridge to the Town of Crested Butte between March 15 and June 21 for the 2019 season.
The Slate River between Oh Be Joyful Campground and Skyland Bridge, a 10.5 mile stretch, provides an incredibly scenic and unique flatwater paddling experience in the Gunnison Valley. The majority of the paddling experiences in the immediate vicinity of Crested butte are demanding Class IV-V, which makes the Slate River a really unique experience for beginner paddlers and those looking for a more family friendly floating experience. In addition, local Stand Up Paddle Board companies rent SUPs and offer guided tours on the Slate River, an important contribution to the local economy.
The Voluntary Closure is a product of the Slate River Floating Management Plan, created by a Working Group convened by the Town of Crested Butte and the Crested Butte Land Trust. The Working Group was created in direct response to pressure from the local community, inlcuding conservationists and private landowners adjacent to the river, who are concerned that a recent increase in boating activity is disturbing a Heron Rookery that straddles the Slate River. The purpose of the Working Group, a group of 18 local stakeholders, was to "provide input and partner in recommending river recreation management actions necessary for upholding the ecological integrity of the Slate River."
The Working Group met 5 times this summer to discuss the management issues on the Slate River. A draft plan was published on September 9 and a public meeting was held on September 29. Only four comments were made from the boating community throughout the process. American Whitewater offered comments at the public meeting and sent comments directly to the Working Group, expressing the need for a more rigorous scientific study to determine the full effects of non-motorized boating on the Heron Rookery. More than 50 letters and public statements supported the river closure and on Oct. 10 the Working Group decided to implement the Voluntary Closure between March 15 and June 21 of the 2019 season. The Final Slate River Floating Management Plan can be found here.
American Whitewater believes that while protecting wildlife and riparian habitat is of utmost importance, there is not enough scientific evidence to show that boating traffic has a long-term negative effect on the Slate River Heron Rookery. In partnership with the Land Trust, Western State Colorado University (WSCU) studied the impacts of boating traffic on the Heron Rookery, specifically looking at whether Herons flushed from their nests and for how long. However, only 8 user days were studied during the 2018 season. We believe that this limited amount of data does not provide enough information to determine whether or not boating activity has a detrimental impact on the Heron Rookery and we strongly encourage more rigorous and long-term scientific study of the rookery in order to establish baseline data for the rookery and determine how the rookery is or is not impacted by non-motorized floating or other user groups.
Furthermore, throughout the Slate River discussion, private landowners have made multiple threats to physically prevent paddlers from floating by their property. Under Colorado Revised Statute 18.9.107, it is prohibited to obstruct a waterway or otherwise make it hazardous or unreasonably inconvenient to travel through. If these threats continue to escalate or come to fruition in the 2019 season, American Whitewater will recommend the issue to the Governor's River Access Dispute Resolution Task Force, which was established in 2011.
After release of the Final Slate River Floating Management Plan this week, the Working Group will take a hiatus until 2019. The Final Report and Literature Review completed by WSCU will be released in December and will inform future iterations of the Management Plan. American Whitewater will continue to stay involved in the process, advocating for policies that are informed by science and ensuring that monitoring of the rookery continues. American Whitewater will also work to improve river etiquette knowledge and practice in the valley and encourage a better stewardship ethic among both locals and visitors, alike.
Images taken from the Final Slate River Floating Management Plan.