OURAY COUNTY – Trout Unlimited has launched a collaborative effort with hunters, anglers and community leaders to gain permanent legislative protection of the hunting, fishing, historic resources, and motorized recreational resources in the Alpine Triangle – roughly defined as the Bureau of Land Management public land between Lake City Silverton and Ouray.
Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project has identified this area as having a very high value in terms of fishing habitat, big game habitat and as an economic driver for the towns of Lake City, Silverton and Ouray, home to the Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway, one of the state’s most revered off-road resources, as well as the headwaters to three trout fisheries including the Animas River, the Uncompahgre River and the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. Dozens of historic mining sites and ghost towns in this area, which draw annual visitors who tour the area by hiking and off road vehicles.
According to Ty Churchwell, a Trout Unlimited backcountry coordinator based in Durango, the goal of the campaign is to keep the area like it is now and to protect it, to which end the group is seeking federal National Conservation Area designation.
“If you take a snapshot of the Alpine Triangle today – the way it looks and the way it is used – we want to keep it that way,” Churchwell said in a telephone interview on Monday, adding that he wants collaboration with all users of this land to make sure all of its current uses are protected. “I am doing everything possible to reach out to the off-highway folks. I am trying to protect their use as well. The way that they use the Alpine Loop is very responsible and is a great example of where our public lands are used by ATVs and used responsibly.”
Churchwell also said he wants people to continue to visit the ghost towns, cabins and historic mining structures in the area. “When we protect these resources, we are also protecting the big game habitat and trout fisheries as well.” This campaign, he cautioned, strictly deals with public lands; there is no private land involvement, he emphasized.
Churchwell cited numerous threats to the area, including irresponsible development and new mining claims. “We are mindful that there are mining claims up there and people have the right to use them. We are supportive of that,” he said. “What we are trying to do is limit new mining claims.”
Churchwell said those who are collaborating in the campaign are also concerned about forestry issues in the area and are of the belief that mountains “really are best when they are covered with trees.
“Those trees provide the habitat up there and that’s why we go up there,” Churchwell said. “We are really interested in limiting forestry issues.”
Additional campaign goals include designating three wilderness study areas that encompass Handies Peak, Redcloud Peak and American Flats as official Wilderness designation. Combined, the new wilderness areas will total nearly 60,000 acres of land that has been managed by the BLM as de facto wilderness for decades.
“These three wilderness [study] areas have been managed that way since 1981 and if they are turned into wilderness, nothing changes,” he said. “What the legislation does is makes it permanent.”
Churchwell said he wants a collaborative process when it comes to federally protecting the Alpine Triangle, in large part, because will make available a number of legislative tools. By sitting down and personally engaging Hinsdale, San Juan and Ouray county representatives as well as residents and stakeholders, the right-fitting federal protection tool can be decided upon and achieved.
“I am pushing for a National Conservation Area, but the point I am trying to make here is that we are not dictating what happens up there,” Churchwell said. “We are just being the spearhead here and doing the ground work. What happens will ultimately be the wishes of the people. I want everybody to be at the table on this.”
Churchwell emphasized the effort is in its infancy and that it is not uncommon for protection work like this to take upwards of three to five years from beginning to end. He said the organization will be launching a website on the campaign soon and that anyone who would like more information about the campaign can call him 970/259-5116.
Trout Unlimited is a grassroots organization made up of hunters and anglers. It is the nation’s oldest river conservation organization. Its national membership is approximately 150,000.