Friday, June 4, 2010

Silent Nighthorse

Since the Durango Herald took this off its website after a week, I'm posting below the text to an opinion piece I wrote that appeared in the Sunday, May 23 edition, so people can find it and pass it on. (Note that a longer version of this essay is also on the Inside Outside website, here.)

So ... spread it around. And if you're interested in joining an email list for sharing news and information on Ridges Basin, email me at ken[at]

Silent Nighthorse:
Motorless lake could keep the wild in Ridges Basin

One night I was walking the lonely county road that used to run through Ridges Basin. It was a near-full-moon night, cold and quiet, when I saw what appeared at first to be an apparition: a square light from a dimly-lit trailer, and behind it some kind of big, bright mass swirling slowly in the meadow.

As I got closer, the scene came together: An old sheepherder’s wagon stood along the dirt road, and behind it a flock of sheep (600 head, I would soon learn) grazed in the moonlight. While I stood there in awe, in appreciation, relishing the unexpected spectacle, out of the trailer came the sheepherder himself.

The young Navajo shepherd shined his big flashlight over his charges while he told me of his task: driving the flock from La Plata, New Mexico, to Ignacio for lambing. He would cross Ridges Basin tomorrow, and push on into Ignacio a few days later.

Then came the hammer: He informed me that after 100 years, I was witnessing this outfit’s the last sheep drive through Ridges Basin. Why? Because next year the site of a new dam that would create Ridges Basin reservoir would be impassable.

"Why do they have to ruin good country?" he asked me, not really seeking answer. Because we both knew why: The Animas-La Plata water project.

Ridges Basin was good country: A wide forest-rimmed valley harboring wetlands and a perennial stream -- a rarity in this high-desert country. Just a few short miles south of downtown Durango, it was a sanctuary for both wildlife and people: a big, quiet, healthy and historic landscape close to town.

It was also until recently home to an estimated 300 mule deer and 100 elk, while as many as 1,400 of the hard-pressed animals migrated through or wintered there. In May and June, the basin served as vital elk calving grounds -- a diminishing commodity in a region where many meadows and valleys have metastasized into subdivisions and trophy homes.

Before A-LP, Ridges Basin was an amazing place. And it was supposed to stay that way.

The Bodo family, whose homes and ranch buildings still stood in the basin before AL-P's flooding, worked this land since 1914. The family gave up ranching in the 1970s, but not their love of the land. In 1974, they sold their ranch to the Nature Conservancy, with a clause in the deed: that Ridges Basin stay wild for wildlife forever. When the Nature Conservancy turned over the basin to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, creating the Bodo State Wildlife Area (read: public property owned by all Coloradoans) that clause remained intact: Forever.

Forever, that is, until 1991, when the CDOW had to deny access to the Bureau of Reclamation for testing for ALP. The Bureau then condemned 4,000 acres of the Bodo Wildlife Area -- to hell with the "public:" in public land, or the "wildlife" in Wildlife Area, or the "forever" clause the CDOW was entrusted with.

And Ridges Basin’s death sentence was issued. Today, that place where I encountered that bygone way of living will itself soon be gone, submerged under the  stagnant pool behind Ridges Basin Dam.

But ... There is still a chance to reclaim and retain some of those "forever wild" qualities to Ridges Basin. There is still a way we can resurrect the spirit and preserve some of the values and intentions of that Bodo gift.

The master planning process for the future of recreation in and around the Ridges Basin reservoir -- which now bears the marketing name "Lake Nighthorse" -- is still in its infancy, and much has yet to be determined.

In the fantasies of the industrial recreationists, Lake Nighthorse and its environs will be home to a regular Four Corners Disneyland that includes a four-lane concrete boat ramp, camping areas and facilities, and trail systems for hikers, bikers and equestrians. Just drawing up the plan for this playground is estimated to cost from $150,000 to $200,000. In 2000, the Colorado Department of State Parks estimated recreational amenities could cost upwards of $25 million -- not counting operations and maintenance.

In recent years, the Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado State Parks, La Plata County, and the City of Durango all have bowed out of the recreation-building business around Lake Nighthorse. Not to be deterred, though, in March the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District took over the development of recreation at Lake Nighthorse. The District is reported to have $50,000 available.

The view from here, then, is that either full build-out doesn't seem likely, or, if the district can find investors to help them, then it's unlikely development will be done in ways that will maintain the quiet, remote, peaceful nature that Ridges Basin has known for millennia. (Or done in ways that are free and open to the public that paid for A-LP to begin with -- see the user fees recently imposed to support recreational amenities at the Bureau of Reclamation's Vallecito Reservoir.)

So here's an idea:

Let's have a silent Nighthorse. Every other reservoir in the Four Corners has been given over to motorized boating and industrial recreation. So let's keep Ridges Basin what it has been since the last ice age, and what the Bodo family intended it to be nearly forty years ago: A nearby sanctuary for both wildlife and people.

We can save both money and an irreplaceable landscape through two stipulations on any Lake Nighthorse recreation plan: Minimal building and non-motorized uses. And we can still make it happen. The ALPWCD has won a grant from the National Park Service River and Trails program, and, with the help of a private consulting firm, is working on setting up a process for public meetings and input on the design of recreation on and around Lake Nighthorse. Look for announcements in coming months on ways to get involved and speak your mind.

There can still be a Ridges Basin that is wild. Forever. If we make it so.

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