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Conservation and Recreation in the San Luis Valley

Updated: Oct 16, 2022

Blog Post by: Isabel Lisle

Date: October 14, 2022

San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council

Photography by local: Andrew Parnes @itsparnes

Handstand at Sand Dunes

1. Introduction:

San Luis Valley (SLV) residents pride themselves on access to unparalleled outdoor recreation experiences in a place that sees little traffic and visitors. The well kept secret of the Valley has historically allowed people to explore these magnificent places in relative solitude. In recent years, however, more tourists and outdoor recreation businesses are discovering the multitude of outdoor opportunities promised by the beautiful open spaces of the San Luis Valley. The number of people moving to the state of Colorado itself has drastically increased over the past couple of decades, from 4.3 million residents in 2000 to 5.9 million residents in 2022 (World Population Review, 2022). As the front range becomes crowded and more clogged with traffic (CDOT, 2022), people are moving further away from the cities to live or recreate in ‘unspoiled’ places with easy access to the mountains and outdoor recreation opportunities. As San Luis Valley supporters of conservation, we must spend time thinking about and preparing for a future of increased outdoor recreation tourism to help protect our wildlife and natural resources for generations to come. The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council recently partnered with the SLV GO! Coalition to collectively write a Conservation and Recreation plan for the Valley. Interviews with Jerry and Tom Sobal (Quiet Use Coalition) about recreational growth in Chaffee County highlight some of the key strategies we must consider as we move forward to help preserve and protect the Valley. They include concentrating recreational tourism (around communities), and protecting unfragmented sections of wildlife habitat.

2. SLV GO! Coalition Conservation and Recreation Plan:

In order to create and maintain a vision of a healthy sustainable ecosystem for the San Luis Valley, we must participate in critical thought around a recreation planning process. SLV GO! recently received a grant from the state of Colorado to write a regional conservation and recreation plan for the San Luis Valley. The plan must identify: a vision for the region, goals and measurable objectives, conservation goals and needs, recreation goals and needs, priority actions and projects, and implementation and monitoring strategies. In order to accomplish these goals, SLV GO! created a coalition of different stakeholders from around the Valley (Colorado Outdoor Regional Partnership Initiative) to provide input as they write this plan. Some of these partners include: SLVEC, the City of Alamosa, Alpine Achievers, SLV Local Foods Coalition, SLV Water Conservancy District, Rio Grande Land Trust, Kristi Mountain Sports, GOCO, Saguache local government, Costilla County local government, etc. They are looking for more diverse input as well from underrepresented populations in the San Luis Valley, the tourism and economic development industry, and local, small business owners. They have created an invitation template for anyone else who might be interested. During these monthly meetings, SLVEC has actively provided the group with strategies to balance an environmental ethic with conservation and land use planning.

Looking out over Del Norte

3. Chaffee County Example (Interview with Tom Sobal and Jerry Mallett):

We can look north to our neighbor, Chaffee County, for insight into the successes and pitfalls of recreational growth. Two locals of Chaffee County, Tom Sobal and Jerry, emphasize the importance of land use management when considering recreational planning. Similar to the San Luis Valley, Chaffee County contains 82% public lands available for recreational use. In 2021, Chaffee County saw 200,000 people floating down its rivers and hiking up its nineteen 14ers (Mallett, 2022). Jerry believes that there is not enough management and too many people. Chaffee County has seen a 53% increase in tourism activity since 2016 (Chaffee Recreation Report, 2020), and a drastic increase in recreational user activity in the last 22 years (Sobal, 2022). Unprepared for this influx of people, their maintenance of healthy forests, waters, wildlife, and working lands greatly suffered (Chaffee Recreation Report, 2020). Tom Sobal says he’s seen a “decline in big game population over the past two decades” and an “explosion of recreational growth.” Many of the locals, understandably, move to the area because of the access to an abundance of free outdoor recreation opportunities. Without proper management and enforcement by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, many locals have constructed their own trails, create and use illegal trails, explore off designated paths, and create new dispersed campsites. Tom Sobal says, “what used to be game trails, are now mountain bike trails.” This puts an incredible amount of stress on the wildlife that have large home ranges such as elk, deer, and lynx. A recent study finds that 40% of priority elk habitat statewide is fragmented by trails (TRCP, 2022). In fact, many trails fragment priority wildlife habitat in Chaffee County despite direction from the Forest Plan and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to limit that disturbance (Colorado's Guide to Planning Trails with Wildlife in Mind, 2021). In order to protect these species and their habitat, human use must be concentrated in specific areas.

Sand Boarding at Sand Dunes

4. Concentrate Recreational Tourism:

One of the best ways to limit environmental impact is by designating a few specific locations around the San Luis Valley as recreation destinations. We can determine these locations based on data from critical habitat areas, current high impact use areas, and areas we want to concentrate tourism and outdoor recreation. In addition, we can concentrate marketing efforts towards these locations to guide tourists and visitors to specific areas around the Valley. This would limit overall recreational use environmental impact, and help staff manage and monitor these sites more effectively. To limit our transportation footprint and improve equitable and inclusive outdoor access we can also prioritize local trails near towns that link communities directly to nature. By designing trails, bike paths, and open space in towns, it would allow residents without a car more accessibility and prevent sprawling trail systems.

5. Protect Wildlife Habitat:

Agencies must take a firm stance in prioritizing wildlife conservation when developing recreation plans. Tom Sobal believes wildlife acts as a barometer for the health of the planet. He argues that we must be proactive in decisions to create a new designated campground or trail or facility, and that everything not designated must be closed. Boulder County, for example, has stringent controls for areas where there can be little or no human use (City of Boulder, 2022). It allows the wildlife to take a break from human contact and thrive in an unstressed environment. Jerry recommends using a permit system similar to Maroon Bells Wilderness (Aspen Chamber, 2022) to prevent overcrowding and limit human impact in high use areas. The challenge of managing these systems includes getting people to adhere to guidelines. A study by Leave No Trace showed that putting up signage and a barrier in front of an undesignated trail is the most effective way to prevent unwanted use (LNT, 2015).

Mountain Biking near Del Norte

6. Closing:

The San Luis Valley engages a vibrant community of farmers, ranchers, teachers, industry workers, young people in the nonprofit industry, along with an increasing interest in outdoor recreation. The environment, sensitive ecosystems, and wildlife must be included in our plan to maintain the vitality of the Valley for the future. As water becomes a precious resource in Colorado, we must also think about planning for the resilience of human life and consider the sustainability of population growth as it relates to recreation. After all, humans are not separate from the landscape, and we must consider how to live, work, and play in balance with a changing ecosystem. Managing our public lands for the future will protect the delicate balance of ecological systems, keep the quality of the user experience up, and ensure the long term sustainability of population growth in the San Luis Valley.

More Suggestions from Chris Canaly (SLVEC Ecosystem Council Director):

1. Focus on building trails near communities to concentrate density and impact.

2. Map ecological areas to design trails away from wildlife corridors. This may include building or closing trails in winter and summer wildlife ranges.

3. Alternate trail closures to give wildlife and damaged sensitive areas a rest.

4. Close trails with signs and barriers.

5. Create a recreational use permit system for sensitive habitat areas during certain times of the year.

6. Develop curriculum in K-12 public schools that build land stewardship ethics in local communities.

7. Provide education that emphasizes ecological sensitivity as an ongoing priority. Work with local businesses, local governments, and public land managers to continually have education forums for the public and various user groups.

Many of you are on the ground and thinking about conservation and recreation everyday. Send us more suggestions for Conservation and Recreation Planning at

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