Threats hover over Horse Gulch
Development, roads could permanently alter popular recreation area

SideStory: The future of open space spending: City creates POST Board

A pair of riders take advantage of a warm Monday afternoon as they pedal through The MeadowLoop in Horse Gulch. The recreation area, which is partly private land, is rapidly becoming one of Durango’s most threatened areas. Thousands of homes and a golf course are planned for the Meadow./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Will Sands

Horse Gulch has been called both Durango’s crown jewel and its Central Park. However, courtesy of rising development pressure, the popular area also is in danger of being lost. In response to a growing threat, efforts are now under way to keep the pressures at bay and get the public behind saving Horse Gulch as we know it.

Located immediately south and east of downtown Durango, Horse Gulch is one of Durango’s only backyard, backcountry experiences. Just minutes from most downtown residences, Horse Gulch and the popular Telegraph Trail system offer more than 30 miles of trails, appealing to a wide variety of users.

“The Telegraph area may be our most highly utilized trail system here in Durango,” said Bill Manning, executive director of the advocacy group Trails 2000. “So many people enjoy it. So many hike, bike, run, exercise their dogs and reconnect with nature there.”

However, Manning quickly added that the area is hanging in a fragile balance, saying, “What you see up there today is not necessarily forever.”

Horse Gulch and the Telegraph area are a patchwork of private and public land holdings. Horse Gulch proper, the valley containing the Meadow, Stacy’s, Mike’s and Cuchillo Ridge trails, is almost entirely private. The land, known as Ewing Mesa, has long been slated for thousands of homes and a new golf course. Plus, the 1,495 acres stretching from Horse Gulch down to Highway 3 recently went on the market for $35 million.

“The biggest challenge will come from rising property values,” Manning explained. “Not only could we see additional development, but we might also see new roads through the area to accommodate automobile traffic.”

With these factors in mind, the Durango Open Space Advisory Board recently kicked off an effort to “Save Horse Gulch.” Scott Graham, the board’s chair, charged that Horse Gulch is among Durango’s most endangered places.

“The reality is that Horse Gulch is incredibly threatened,” he said. “There are several pieces up there that are absolutely in danger of being developed.”

Graham went on to explain what could happen to the area, saying, “The Meadow Loop is right in the middle of where a golf course fairway would be. From the start of the Meadow Loop to the base of Telegraph Hill would all be houses. Plus, La Plata County has it on its radar screen to run a county road back through there. To have cars in Horse Gulch would completely change the experience up there.”

In addition to the possibility of automobile traffic returning to Horse Gulch Road, a bypass highway could also be routed through the Telegraph Trail system and Horse Gulch to accommodate new traffic from the Three Springs development in Grandview.

“Not only will we see additional development, but we also might see a new road to accommodate automobile traffic from Three Springs,” Manning said. “And when any new road goes in, that drives up property values, and you get a domino effect.”

The southeastern portion of the trail system sits on Bureau of Land Management land. However, those 1,600 acres, containing trails like Sidewinder, Cowboy, Sale Barn, South Rim and Big Canyon, could also feel the pinch, according to Manning. Expanded gravel mining in the area already has forced several reroutes. 

“A bunch of that is BLM land, and that includes the trails and the wildlife but also the gravel pits and potential gas wells and the new gas and powerline going in right now for Three Springs,” Manning added.

As an added twist, Fort Lewis College owns a great deal of land in the northern end of Horse Gulch and along Raider Ridge. Though the college has indicated that it has no immediate plans to develop or sell the property, it is not permanently deeded it as public park or open space either.

“The college is one of the largest land owners up there, and we hope that they have preservation in mind,” Manning said. “But the property might also be viewed as a source of future revenue for Fort Lewis.”

Though the Horse Gulch picture may appear desperate, there also is hope, Manning explained. In the late 1990s, Noel Pautsky dedicated 11 miles of permanent trail easements in Horse Gulch to the public. Even if housing and golf courses fill the area, the Telegraph, Crites Connect, Carbon Junction, Anasazi and bulk of the Sidewinder trails will exist forever.

“Thanks to Mr. Pautsky’s trail gifts, the Ewing Mesa development will not obliterate the trails,” Manning said. “In fact, we might even end up working toward additional routes. It would just change the ambiance, but wouldn’t necessarily take the trails out.”

In late July, the city’s Open Space Advisory Board toured Horse Gulch with members of the Durango City Council. The effort was intended, in part, to get the council’s attention and spark interest in preserving Horse Gulch. Mayor Dale Garland noted that safeguarding the area and trails is high on his priority list, and he hopes it can be Durango’s next major open space project.

“There’s nothing in motion right now,” Garland said. “We’ve been focusing on getting the Jacob’s Cliffs open space purchase on Animas Mountain done first. Once everything’s completed there, we can start focusing on Horse Gulch. In my mind, that will be one of the next major open space acquisitions for us to tackle.”

There also is hope that as word of the threat to Horse Gulch spreads, the public will pick up the push for preservation. Graham noted that purchasing a $35 million parcel as open space is simply not an option. However, there may be other ways of ensuring that Horse Gulch remains a vital piece of Durango. “We’re just trying to raise awareness and let people know that Horse Gulch is in play at this moment,” Graham explained. “As an open space board, we’re into getting the message out there and letting any prospective buyers know that these trails are valuable to the community.”

And Manning concluded that members of the community should take some time to remember just how valuable Horse Gulch is.

“People who have a chance to visit the natural environment become focused on preservation,” he said. “You really have to go there to remind yourself of how much you love it.” •



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