Threats hover over Horse Gulch
Popular recreation area faces uncertain future

SideStory: A ‘perfect piece’ – City to purchase large Horse Gulch parcel

Despite snowy conditions, a well worn path leads up the Horse Gulch Road. Considered the crown jewel of Durango for its proximity to town, the popular recreation areas is facing a number of threats, form mining to development. A recent report compiled by Fort Lewis College students details these threats and will be made available to the public./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Will Sands

It has been called one of Durango’s crown jewels and the town’s Central Park. However, the fate of Horse Gulch is hanging in the balance as mounting development pressures threaten to erase the popular recreation area. With this uncertainty in mind, a Fort Lewis College team recently completed a comprehensive inventory of Horse Gulch’s past, present and uncertain future.

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 easily accessible singletrack and appeal to a wide variety of users.

“It’s always been and remains a gem for this community, a place you can ride or walk to from the center of town,” said Mary Monroe, executive director of Trails 2000. “I think there’s a real desire to see Horse Gulch remain what it is – a quiet place where Durango can recreate.”

Last fall, a Fort Lewis College research group embarked on an extensive study of the area including its assets, history, political and economic impacts, as well as the threats it faces. The review was undertaken by a group of students and Assistant Professor Brad Clark as part of an inaugural Environmental Colloquium course.

“Horse Gulch represents the closest thing Durango has to a Central Park,” Clark said. “It’s valuable as an obvious recreation resource. From an ecological standpoint, it’s critical habitat. For the college, it’s an incredible outdoor classroom. And it’s also valuable because it contains many undocumented and unstudied prehistoric sites.”

Value aside, Horse Gulch is also in peril. The Fort Lewis findings included a “threat assessment,” detailing possible development scenarios on what are currently some of Durango’s favorite open spaces. Clark explained that he hopes the findings will help clear up some public misconceptions.

“On one side of the coin, people aren’t talking about the threats to Horse Gulch nearly as much as they should be,” he said. “On the other, there’s a lot of misinformation and innuendo out there, like suggestions that they’re going to pave Horse Gulch.”

The greater Horse Gulch – including the Telegraph trail system – is a patchwork of private and public land. Horse Gulch proper, the valley containing the Meadow, Stacy’s, Mike’s and Cuchillo Ridge trails, is almost entirely private and faces the greatest potential of development. The land known as Ewing Mesa stretches high into the Gulch from the south and has long been discussed as the location for thousands of homes and a new golf course. That changed last fall when the 1,495 acres stretching down to Highway 3 was subdivided into 35-acre parcels. That move represented the greatest danger to Horse Gulch to date, according to Clark.

“That subdivision effectively opened the door to 53 single family homes to come in without any review,” he said. “Literally, someone could buy a plot, blade in a road and fence off a piece of property in the middle of Horse Gulch.”

Growth in the Grandview area could also imperil Horse Gulch. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s 2030 TRIP report, a bypass highway will be routed through the Telegraph Trail system and Horse Gulch. The byway would be the most direct route to the Three Springs development in Grandview.

“It’s the natural link,” Clark said. “There are actually two different road options that would connect Three Springs to Goeglin Road in order to alleviate pressure on Highway 160.”

Resource extraction on publicly owned land is a third threat to the trail system. The southeastern portion of the trail system sits on Bureau of Land Management land. Those 1,600 acres – containing trails like Sidewinder, Cowboy, Sale Barn, South Rim and Big Canyon – are steadily being chipped away at by two mining operations.

“Ever expanding gravel mining is really the third major threat to Horse Gulch,” Clark 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 as open space either. With all these factors in mind, Clark remarked that Durangoans owe a debt of gratitude to the slumping national economy. It is currently the only think keeping buildings, roads and expanded pit mining out of the Gulch, he said.

“Most people I’ve talked with really don’t know that these things can happen,” Clark explained. “Because there is an established trail system up there, people assume it will be there forever. That’s not the case. There is no comprehensive protection for Horse Gulch.”

While Clark acknowledged that the study raised more questions than answers, he is hoping that the community can step up and help generate solutions. The first step toward those answers will be a grassroots dialogue. In order to facilitate that discussion, Clark hopes to get the college involved and plans on making the class’ Horse Gulch report available to the public in coming weeks.

“Nobody’s talking right now,” he said. “There are a lot of stakeholders with ownership and interests in Horse Gulch, but there’s very little communication. Without that, there will always be an uncertain future in Horse Gulch.” •