Help for Horse Gulch
Efforts continue to preserve threatened recreational resource

SideStory: The threats to Horse Gulch

Telegraph hill frames a view of Horse Gulch early this week. Ewing Mesa, a nearly 1,500 acre private holding, covers much of the Gulch and was recently subdivided into 53 separate parcels. Their potential development is just one of several threats facing one of Durango’s favorite places to recreate./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Will Sands

Riders in this weekend’s Singlespeed World Championships will be treated to some of Durango’s finest singletrack. As Durangoans have long known, the nearby Horse Gulch area is an unparalleled resource for backyard biking, hiking and trail running. However, Horse Gulch is by no means forever. Mounting development pressures continue to threaten to erase the popular recreation area as well as the trails that fill it. And while homes and highways could find their way into everyone’s favorite span of scrub, a multi-pronged effort is steadily coming to the rescue of “Durango’s Central Park.”

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 legendary Telegraph Trail system offer more than 30 miles of easily accessible singletrack appealing to a wide variety of users.

“Horse Gulch has always been and remains a treasure 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. Preserving Horse Gulch should be a top priority for this community.”

However, Horse Gulch and the Telegraph area are also a patchwork of private and public land holdings. Horse Gulch proper, the valley containing the Meadow, Stacy’s, Mike’s, Cuchillo Ridge and Secret trails, is almost entirely private. The land just to the south, known as Ewing Mesa, has long been slated for thousands of homes and a new golf course and was recently subdivided into 53 separate 35-acre parcels which could hit the market at anytime.

Additionally, Horse Gulch has been identified as a transportation sacrifice zone. As congestion grows along U.S. Hwy. 160 between Durango and the satellite community of Grandview, a bypass through the recreational resource becomes increasingly likely.

Fort Lewis College recognized these dangers last fall and responded with innovative action when a research group embarked on an extensive study of the Horse Gulch area. The assessment was undertaken by a group of students and Assistant Professor Brad Clark as part of an inaugural Environmental Colloquium course and included analysis of Horse Gulch’s assets, history, political and economic impacts, as well as the threats it faces.

“It’s been over a year since we began this process, and I’m still shocked that so many members of our community have no idea that these threats are present,” Clark said.

Echoing Monroe, Clark noted that Horse Gulch represents the closest thing Durango has to a Central Park. While its value as a recreation resource is obvious, Clark added that Horse Gulch also serves as critical wildlife habitat, contains numerous archeological sites and acts as an outdoor classroom for Fort Lewis. Clark and the students will be continuing their efforts this year by putting their findings into practice.

“We want to take the lead in establishing some kind of formal discussion on the future of Horse Gulch,” Clark said. “It will be key to create a group where various stakeholders can come together and start generating comprehensive strategies for preservation efforts.”

The City of Durango is already forging ahead with an ambitious preservation plan in Horse Gulch. In 2005, Durango voters approved a one-half cent increase on local sales tax, and half that amount is dedicated to parks, trails and open space acquisition. Buoyed by these funds, the City has aggressively pursued getting Horse Gulch open space off the “threatened” list.

“Preserving Horse Gulch is an incredibly high priority for the City of Durango,” said Cathy Metz, Durango parks and recreation director. “We are making fabulous steps in the right direction.”

In the late 1990s, the City purchased 160 acres in Horse Gulch as a potential reservoir for drinking water. In a mixed blessing, the construction of the Animas-La Plata project shelved the reservoir plan and edged the acreage closer to permanent open space. Earlier this year, the City’s stake in Horse Gulch grew, when it acquired a one-third interest in a nearby 240-acre parcel for $416,000. The city now shares ownership of that piece with La Plata County and the FLC Foundation, and its status as permanent open space is secure. Early this year, the City also entered into a contract to purchase “a perfect piece,” the 222-acre Crader parcel, located high in Horse Gulch near the end of the Mike’s and Secret loops. Great Outdoors Colorado recently awarded $234,500 toward the $670,000 purchase price, and closing is scheduled for this December. And Durango is continuing to pursue additional purchases in Horse Gulch, having applied for a $250,000 grant to help secure an additional 115 acres, though the location has not been disclosed.

“Because of these acquisitions, adjacent property owners are beginning to approach the City and say they’re interested in preservation as well,” Metz said.

But despite these efforts, the potential development of Ewing Mesa looms in the not-so-distant future, particularly with the recent subdivision of the massive property into thirty-fives. Nonetheless, Durango is strategizing and plans to keep fairways and homes out of the area currently containing the Meadow Loop and lower Telegraph Trail.

“We’re not in any position to buy all of Ewing Mesa,” Metz said. “It’s nearly 1,500 acres, and we just don’t have the resources. But we are keeping a close eye on things and starting to get into position.”

And for their part, Monroe and Trails 2000 are applauding the effort. “I commend the City for having a proactive plan and preserving open space that has great value to community for a variety of reason,” Monroe concluded. “Saving Horse Gulch will be good for wildlife, recreation and everyone’s quality of life in Durango.”



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