One of the longest-running art shows in the United States, the 41st Gathering at the Great Divide in Breckenridge is Labor Day weekend.
As the final show in the Mountain Art Festivals’ 2016 lineup of three events, the father and daughter team of Dick and Tina Cunningham are presenting over 100 artists in 13 categories.
The nationally-ranked show — with free admission — runs Sept. 3-5, in the Main Street and Wellington parking lots. The art festival hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., on Saturday and Sunday, and Monday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“This is one of the longest running events in Breckenridge,” Dick Cunningham explains with pride.
He helped keep the show going nearly 40 years ago, when he approached the Breckenridge Resort Chamber to take over the production of the festival.
Today, it’s become a two-generation operation as daughter Tina, back as a full-time Kingdom of Breckenridge resident, is continuing the family work.
Her father is a well-known wildlife and landscape photographer, doing about 35 shows annually, many of which daughter Tina travels along for, as does Dick’s wife Mary.
The Cunninghams believe that being touring artists keeps them in tune with the art-buying public and this helps to make sure their peers’ needs are addressed to make for better shows.
This year’s Gathering highlights Colorado watercolorist Carmel Walden, jeweler Richard Lindsay of Santa Fe and Boulder ceramicist Willi Eggerman.
A proposed housing development at 2 Miners Creek Road in Frisco is drawing strong criticism from neighbors who say the project — which would replace a single family home with four separate townhomes — is inappropriate for a low-density neighborhood. During a planning commission meeting on July 21, a handful of neighbors presented a petition against the project, which is still in the initial planning phase. If approved, construction could begin as early as November according to its builder, Pete Campbell.
The building site is zoned residential low-density, meaning construction is capped at eight units per acre. 2 Miners Creek is only one-half acre, so four separate units are technically allowed. But many of the surrounding properties are single-family homes on large lots, a characteristic of the neighborhood some residents fear would be destroyed by development.
“I would not have made this investment in Frisco if I thought the town would allow the single family homes on large lots to be turned into whatever you want to call the proposal for 2 Miners Creek,” said Terry Smith, who bought his home at 4 Miners Creek in 2004.
“My backyard is right next to it,” said Jerie Ilch, who lives on Willow Lane, which is not part of the town of Frisco. “Most neighbors feel this way — that they don’t want these huge houses on a small lot.”
While the plans are not yet finalized, an initial mock-up shows four tightly clustered townhomes with prominent garages. There is no limit to the number of bedrooms in each structure.
“Our code requires homes to be arranged as four separate buildings rather than a four-plex,” said Frisco’s community development director Joyce Allgaier. “We want them to look more like single family homes. That’s the point of the zoning.”
She stressed that the proposal was in conformity with low-density zoning requirements that limit development to eight units per acre. Moderate-density and high-density zoned lots cap development at 12 and 16 units per acre, respectively.
According to some residents, however, these zoning rules are outdated and come from a time when Frisco was more eager to spur growth. The stated purpose of the zoning rule is to “promote single-household detached dwellings … and to help preserve the community’s natural amenities and scenic views.”
For Smith, however, the rules are failing to live up to this purpose.
“Low-density zoning was written a long time ago,” he said. “And they’ve added a lot of amendments that create loopholes, so people can come in and make as much money as possible. They’re picking and choosing which rules they’re using.”
With building sites in such short supply, however, it’s not clear how Frisco can add to its housing capacity without increasing density.
“We don’t have a lot of ‘green fields’ in Frisco that are prime open spaces waiting for subdivision,” said Allgaier. “But there is a lot of opportunity for re-development because a lot of properties are under-developed.”
She said she understands that openness is something people in the community value but that residents should be aware that some land is zoned for higher density than what they might expect.
“It’s as standard as you can get,” she said, referring to the proposal.
Over the past several years, Frisco has seen a flurry of new development. Recently, neighbors blocked a cabin-housing proposal for 2 Miners Creek, which would have put eight small units on the parcel. Ensuring that housing is affordable has also become a priority, as rising property values have priced out members of the local workforce. While Frisco’s small, single-family homes are not cheap, some residents think they are a vital source of reasonably priced housing.
“It’s high-end housing,” said Ilch. “Do you really think local families are going to buy that?”
She expressed concern that the units would either remain unoccupied most of the year or be rented out short-term through VRBO and AirBnB.
“We take feedback from the planning commission and community,” said Campbell, the project’s builder. “We have made some changes. I know a lot of residents feel differently about it, but it adheres to the zoning requirements.”
The problem for residents like Ilch and Smith, however, isn’t with whether or not the project is allowed by zoning laws — it’s whether or not these laws should be changed.
“I understand some people might disagree with me,” said Ilch. “But I think it would be nice if we had zoning for single-family homes only.”
Gary DeFrange remembers that spring afternoon in 2009 when he watched the former Ski Train disappear into the Moffat Tunnel for the last time. It was the end of a nearly 70-year run of weekend train service between downtown Denver and Winter Park ski area.
Paul Peronard isn’t the type of guy you’d expect to work for the EPA. Barrel-chested with thick forearms and a whistle so sharp it can silence a room of 50, he looks more like a guy you’d find swinging a mattock deep in a mine, not topside trying to plug one with concrete. But that’s what he’s been doing for years in the mountains of Colorado: filling in old mines, treating the water that flows out of them or doing whatever he can to stop contaminants from reaching our waterways. On Thursday, he was joined by his cohort Jeff Graves from the Colorado Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety — who’s been working on old mines for 16 years — for a tour of the Pennsylvania Mine cleanup eight miles west of Keystone.
“None of these sites are easy fixes,” Graves said. “Each one is like a puzzle you have to solve, and you only have three months a year to work on them up here because of the weather.”
The two men have taken point on the Pennsylvania Mine cleanup, a group effort involving a staggering number of players that together form the Snake River Task Force: Trout Unlimited, Summit County Open Spaces, the U.S. Geological Survey, Fish and Wildlife, Denver Water and on and on. Representatives from this smattering of groups, along with local residents, gathered at the Keystone Policy Institute Early Thursday for a tour of the latest engineering efforts at the mine.
For decades, the Penn has been dumping heavy-metal laden water into Peru Creek, a tributary of the Snake River. Its caverns act like a funnel, channeling groundwater through mineral-rich sections of rock and dumping it into the creek. The runoff isn’t dangerous to humans but can have devastating ecological impacts. In 2007, a storm surge sent discolored water far down the Snake into Keystone and caused a massive fish kill. Trout stocks there have yet to recover.
Before then, the Penn Mine was everyone’s problem and nobody’s problem: even though the mine’s pollution had been common knowledge since the 1980s, a mind-boggling patchwork of mining claims, government jurisdictions and agency responsibilities in the area meant no one group took the initiative. After the 2007 surge, however, things started to come together.
“It can be a little difficult working with so many different groups,” said Graves. “Everyone has different priorities and ideas about what should be done. But without all these partners, it would be impossible.”
The Penn Mine lies up a dirt road that follows Peru Creek. Along the way, you can see what drew prospectors up this valley: the rocks in the creek are a deep orange, caked with Iron. Every now and then, you can see a natural spring seeping mineral-laced water from unexploited seams. Even if it weren’t for all the mining, upper Peru Creek would still be somewhat contaminated due to the area’s geology.
Just up the road from a big mess of logs that used to be an ore mill, the tour came to a massive culvert sticking from the side of Decatur Mountain. A yellow sign mounted on its barred metal doors read: “THIS MINE WILL KILL YOU!”
“I’m surprised no one’s stolen that yet,” chuckled Peronard.
Orange water still trickles from under the culvert, but it now seeps into the groundwater long before reaching Peru Creek, a big improvement from the stream of iron-laden water that used to flow directly into it. By installing two bulkheads — concrete plugs about 20 feet thick — in one of the main mine shafts, the team reduced the flow of toxic water by about 80 percent. Pressure sensors indicate that the bulkhead is now holding back a 160-foot wall of water. At first blush it sounds like a recipe for a huge blowout, but Graves assures the audience huddled around the culvert that it’s designed to withstand at least 1,000 feet of water. In fact, the bulkheads all but ensure that another surge like the one in 2007 will never happen again.
“There are 80 to 100 mines in this area, and obviously we can’t clean them all up,” said Peronard. “So we ask, ‘where’s the bang for the buck? What improvements can we expect?’ With this mine, we’ve gotten a big runoff reduction for a relatively small investment.”
Char Bloom, who has lived on the Snake River in Keystone since 1985, came on the tour because she was concerned about the color of the river and thought it might have something to do with mine pollution.
“The past few years, the water has been very cloudy and iridescent green, and it’s never been like that before,” she said. “There are kids swimming in it and there’s no signage warning about it.”
A man who works for the U.S. Geological Survey assured her that its extremely unlikely that anything in the river is harmful to humans, although it certainly is to fish. As for the change in color, he said it was likely due to flooding in the past couple of years that has disturbed river and creek beds, kicking up mostly harmless sediments and sending them downstream.
“That was a really good explanation, and it made me feel a lot better,” said Bloom, who reasoned that it was probably the Montezuma flood in 2014 that was responsible.
“I thought the tour was fascinating,” said Margaret Greene, who also lives in Keystone. “It’s the neatest thing how they were able to explain how sometimes the water can look so different.”
Despite the progress they’ve made in a just a few years, the Snake River Task Force isn’t done with the Penn Mine just yet. By the end of the summer, they hope to finish a third bulkhead on a higher level of the mine. Next summer, they plan on drilling wells above the sections of mine they’ve flooded to inject water treatment agents.
As Summit County’s ski resorts begin to set their gears in motion for another snow season, the White River National Forest has released a draft environmental assessment for a series of new summer projects at Copper Mountain Resort.
In February, the Forest Service released notice to about 56 interested community members and organizations announcing that Copper was proposing three new projects. The notice informed the recipients of the Forest Service’s plans to conduct an environmental impact assessment, and asked for comments from the readers on the additions.
The first proposed project is an alpine roller coaster that would be built in the Center Village area near the American Flyer lift. The coaster would be gravity-driven and would incorporate 1,850 feet of uphill track, a 500-square-foot operators building, a 3,950-foot downhill track, and a 2,200-square-foot bottom terminal building on private land. The track would require three new bridges, but construction and maintenance would use existing mountain access roads and the cleared route for the coaster track. Construction is anticipated to take 6 months, and the coaster will be open during daylight hours year round.
The resort is also planning to create a new, mile-long mountain biking trail that would extend from the Fat Marmot ski run down to Center Village. This trail would improve the connectivity of Copper’s mountain bike trails and effectively disperse bikers across the mountain, as the trail would be located on the east side of the American Flyer lift.
The bike trail would be constructed with a mini-excavator and would have a 5-foot tread width, requiring an 8-foot cleared corridor. Trees would be removed as necessary, but the entire alignment of the forest would not be clear-cut. Slash, logs and stumps would be burned from the trail soon after tree removal in the spring and fall.
The last element of the resort’s construction plan is the enhancement of snowmaking equipment on the West Encore and Collage ski trails. Although Copper’s existing snowmaking system covers 329 acres of developed terrain network, the popularity and windward exposure of the two runs mean that they often have insufficient snow coverage. More snow is needed on West Encore for ski and snowboard training, while Collage needs more coverage to allow for top-to-bottom trail access for the public in the early season.
The snowblowing additions would add 20 acres of snowmaking coverage within the existing terrain network. Up to 0.25 acres of tree removal might be necessary for construction, and the operation of the snowblowing equipment would require 29 acre-feet, or about 8.5-million gallons, of water. This water will be drawn from Copper’s existing source of physical and legal water supply. The resort will continue to divert 530 acre-feet (about 170 million gallons) of water per season.
“The project as proposed will help to diversify the summer amenities at Copper and will also provide great snow coverage for early season ski and snowboard training that is unique to Copper,” said Dillon District ranger Bill Jackson in a press release.
When considering the environmental impacts of the projects, the Forest Service looked at eight main factors: recreation, scenery, cultural sites, social and economic resources, botany and wetlands, water resources, wildlife, and soils. The investigation team decided that air quality, climate change, environmental justice, noise, traffic and special designations such as wilderness would not be measurably affected by the construction and operation of the projects.
The study found that three new additions would benefit recreation in the area. Winter visitation would likely not increase due to the alpine coaster, but in the summer, the coaster is predicted to bring approximately 10,000 guests, or 100 guests per day, to Copper. This is an increase that the resort can accommodate, the study concluded. The Forest Service assessment also determined that the new mountain bike trail and the snowblowing developments would both improve the conditions for visitors enjoying the outdoors.
Likewise, the visual impact of the projects will be minimal, although the coaster, with its reflective tracks, will be visible for a short time from I-70, as well as from the base area and surrounding ski runs, the study said. None of the proposed projects would impact any identified cultural sites or resources.
Like much development of ski resorts, the three proposed projects are expected to have a positive socioeconomic impact on the community. The operation and maintenance of the alpine coaster would create approximately eight additional jobs, which will be filled by employees from Copper’s existing pool of part-time workers. By working two seasons in one year, these workers would be able to qualify more quickly for the resort’s healthcare plan.
The impact on the flora surrounding the sites will be composed largely of tree removal. However, because all the projects are linear, the resort would remove trees as necessary within a given acreage, but would not clear-cut that area.
In order to mitigate the risk of impact to the local watershed and aquatic life, a drainage management system has been proposed, which would reroute surface runoff from the additional blown snow through an armored channel into West Lake.
The construction of the alpine coaster, snowmaking infrastructure and bike trail will have some impact on wildlife, resulting in the permanent loss of about 2.9 acres of winter foraging habitat and 0.35 acres of other habitat. It would also lead to the summer displacement of other wildlife due to the operation of the coaster and the use of the bike trail. There would also be some habitat loss due to tree removal.
The soil stability and quality are not likely to be heavily affected by the new projects, as the ground surrounding the construction areas is quite stable, and post-treatment slash will be returned to the site to prevent a loss of organic material.
In all, the action plan would add 10.3 acres of grading, 1.4 acres of tree clearing, 1.8 acres of combined grading and tree clearing, 20 acres of snowmaking coverage, 1 mile of mountain biking trail, and 40 acre-feet (13 million gallons) of water in the new drainage system.
The environmental impact of the planned projects is fairly low, said Roger Poirier of White River National Forest. Environmental assessments are conducted for relatively low-impact projects; if there were potential major effects, an environmental impact report would be compiled instead.
The environmental assessment is currently in a 30-day comment period, during which community members can share their thoughts on the report with the Forest Service, which will then take the feedback into account, in conjunction with the environmental analysis and staff recommendations, when deciding whether to allow (in whole or in part) the projects to go ahead. Based on public comments, the forest service may perform additional analysis or modify the project plans.
“We just started the comment period, so basically a month from now we’re going to have a much better idea about what the public thinks of this,” said Poirier.
The verdict is planned for sometime this winter.
The final decision by the Forest Service will then undergo a 45-day appeal process, and based on this feedback, the service will react or publish a final document. As this process occurs, the team at Copper will be working with their engineers to finalize designs for the project.
If and when the projects are approved by the Forest Service, Copper Mountain will begin removing trees for the alpine coaster, which is planned to be operational by Labor Day of 2017.
Lake Hill, the largest workforce housing project in Summit County to date, is moving forward. The county will once again seek public input as it takes steps toward a final master plan. Summit County planning director Don Reimer said they anticipated finishing the master plan in late September or early October. The entire process began this spring, after the county gained congressional approval to purchase the parcel from the U.S. Forest Service. The 44.8-acre plot of land overlooking the reservoir from the Dillon Dam Road sold for $1.75 million.
“We have goals. This costs a lot of money, but we want to make sure it’s done right,” Reimer said. “If it’s something that literally takes an act of Congress, you’d better make sure you do it right.”
The public will have the opportunity to review drafts and provide feedback at the Sept. 7 open house, located at the Summit County Community and Senior Center in Frisco. Information from previous meetings has been compiled into surveys, reflecting a need for both ownership and rental housing and 2-3 bedroom units over one-bedroom units. The surveys also showed a desire for both a community center and childcare at Lake Hill.
“We’re so appreciative that so many members of our community have taken the time to provide input throughout this process,” Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson said in a statement. “This high level of engagement is allowing us to develop a framework for the neighborhood that’s truly reflective of the community’s needs and desires.”
Reimer said they would consider the surveys while following the framework of Summit County’s housing needs assessment, which will be updated this fall. The current assessment shows a 60-40 split between the need for rental and ownership units.
“We’re still working on breaking out the approximate numbers of for sale or rental units,” Reimer said. “We’re aiming to fulfill as many AMI (area median income) categories as is feasible in this particular property.”
While the previous open house estimated a unit range between 410 and 590 units, Reimer estimated the final number will likely be between 400 and 450 units.
“The feedback has caused us to take another look at that and pare it down a little bit,” Reimer said. “We are trying to find a sweet spot between improvements that are necessary and trying to accommodate the most people.”
While the numbers are not yet set, Reimer said every unit would include some form of deed restriction. The county is also considering how senior housing could be incorporated into the project, while carefully targeting local seniors over out-of-state retirees.
“There was a contingent of advocates for senior housing that have come to open houses,” Reimer said. “I think there is a community desire for some senior housing. I think that can integrate really well in the neighborhood.”
Ultimately, the deed restrictions will be contingent on how the project is funded, to an extent. Reimer said they would apply for Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) funding to help facilitate part of the project. A ballot measure this fall would increase sales tax revenues for workforce housing if passed; and in the case of Lake Hill, would go toward its hefty infrastructure costs.
“This is a pretty important project and we’re going to do everything we can to make it happen,” Reimer said.
The current draft of the master plan combines a mixture of apartments, single-family homes and townhomes, with both rental and ownership opportunities. The final master plan will include recommendations for phasing and more specifics on the architecture.
The three primary goals for the project include offering a mixture of housing styles, serving a variety of income levels, and creating the opportunity for residents to have mobility to upsize or downsize within the community.
The proposed site design should make the best use of Lake Hill’s south-facing slopes. Each residential unit will have access to open space according to the current plan, linking all residences through a greenbelt, trails and a community center.
While some nearby residents have expressed concerns about access to the development from the Dillon Dam Road, road improvements and traffic calming strategies are part of the plan. At this point, Reimer said they were considering two roundabouts to provide access to the development, and possibly improving the intersection at Summit Boulevard as well.
“We’re hoping to work with some of our partners to help facilitate improvements there,” Reimer said.
Other proposals include adding bike lanes and sidewalks along the Dam Road and adding Summit Stage bus stops at the two entrances.
Once the master plan is finished this fall, the county will begin to rezone and subdivide the project. Infrastructure construction is slated for the spring and summer of 2017, with the goal of breaking ground on phase one of the project in 2018.
In addition to working closely with the town of Frisco’s planning department, the county selected Corum Real Estate Group to lead a consultant team of Gorman & Company Inc., Norris Design, Shopworks Architecture, Studio PBA and Tetra Tech to create the master plan.
“We encourage everyone to get involved in this final round of discussion. The more input we receive, the better positioned we’ll be to design a neighborhood for locals that meaningfully supports their quality of life and Summit County’s overall sense of community,” Davidson said.
Thanks to a change in ownership, Main Street Station has transformed over the last year from half-empty property to a lively marketplace. The prime piece of real estate, located at the south end of Breckenridge’s Main Street and adjacent to the slopes, suffered from the recession and a foreclosure prior to the switch.
“I was walking around Main Street Station one day and was curious as to why it was half-vacant when Breckenridge was doing really well,” said Brent Martin, the current property owner.
The Austin, Texas-based investor had worked with foreclosed properties before and knew the process would be a long one.
“It took about a year,” he said.
Since he closed on the property in April 2015, Main Street Station has acquired seven additional tenants, bumping the occupancy rate from just under 50 percent to 80 percent. He teamed up with local commercial realtor Jack Wolfe to help vet the occupants.
“We set out on a strategy a year ago to attract the right tenant mix,” Martin said. “We’ve gotten some good tenants in there.”
Wolfe, who is currently serving as operating partner on the project, served as managing partner for the mixed-use development about 15 years ago. In 2004, the property was sold to New York-based management firm First Allied Corporation; in 2014, they lost the property to foreclosure. Part of the challenge with revitalizing the property was shaking the stigma left by the previous owners, who offered little support to businesses during the downturn and would not return calls, he said.
“These last 12 years, it was just horrible watching it go downhill,” he said. “It was good real estate. Which is why I was pretty bullish to reacquire it.”
A DESTINATION FOR MOM
In the past year, the duo have brought in a juice shop, cheese shop, clothing boutique, spin classes and more. Essentially, Martin said the mix of tenants should appeal to “mom on vacation.”
The new businesses were matched with established local companies, such as Caamano Sweaters, the flagship store featuring Peruvian textiles.
“The kind of person to go to the cheese shop in Breckenridge is the kind of person to go to Caamano’s.” Wolfe said. “All of these businesses feed off each other, which is exactly our strategy.”
Courtney Kenn, with the Cheese Shop of Breckenridge, said they picked the location for their new store in January after hearing about the new owners.
“We decided to go with Main Street Station mostly because of the new ownership group and how invested they were in the revitalization of the plaza,” she said. “Business keeps getting better and better.”
This same attitude also attracted Hub Breckenridge, a burgeoning tech boutique, and its newest neighbor, Elevate CoSpace. Wolfe and Martin also brought back Howard Head Sports Medicine, a physical therapy clinic that had closed its doors under the previous owner.
“After a year of ownership, I think we’ve made good progress,” Martin said. “I feel now we’ve got enough critical mass that we can get the rest of the job done.”
Just a year ago, Main Street Station had 12 or 13 vacant spaces, Wolfe said. Now, it’s down to four. Still, he is in no rush to fill the spaces until he finds the right tenants.
“Brent put together all of the investors for this. They’re very patient, which allows me to be very selective about who we bring in there and make sure there’s good synergy between all of the businesses,” he said.
The plaza has also been tapped to host several local events, including the upcoming Breckenridge HogFest, thanks to a partnership with Rocky Mountain Events.
“We’ve just been working to drive more traffic to that south end of town,” Martin said.
In the near future, Wolfe said Continental Divide Winery would join the mix, as well as a new restaurant. The Colorado-based winery will feature a tasting room, complementing the nearby tenants.
The restaurant will open in the space previously occupied by Poached Breakfast Bar, and will offer breakfast, lunch and dinner. Martin said Terry Barbu, the owner of FlipSide Burger and the Blue Stag Saloon, would spearhead the effort.
“In the next few weeks, we’ll have a couple of new things,” Wolfe said. “We’re really excited. We have a good vision of where we want to go.”
Condos are king in Summit County property sales, if this summer’s numbers are any indication. Condominiums in Dillon Valley, a small, more affordable neighborhood tucked between Interstate 70 and Highway 6, has seen average price increases of 36 to 44 percent.
“They’re seeing a dramatic increase because they’re some of the last affordable listings,” Summit County Assessor Beverly Breakstone said. “Dillon Valley is the hot market. We think that is because those were inexpensive condos. If you wanted something in Summit, you could buy something there that is affordable.”
The concept also applies to a single condominium complex within Dillon Valley, an older property that dates back to the 1970s. During the same time period, from July 2014 to June 30, 2016, Orofino by Straight Creek saw a 17.25-percent price increase.
Breakstone said countywide, condominium sales are up 11 percent, with the average price jumping a whopping 39 percent. While townhomes went for a median price of $486,700, the median price of condos varies substantially depending on the location:
• Dillon/Silverthorne area: $261,000
• Dillon Valley Condos: $144,750
• Copper Mountain Condos: $317,450
• Frisco Condos: $390,750
• Breckenridge-area condos: $379,850
By region, Breckenridge and Blue River continued to lead in the total number of listings and price, with 76 listings at an average price of $612,160. Silverthorne and Dillon reported a total of 70 transactions for an average price of $358,483.
IF THE PRICE IS RIGHT…
Luxury condominiums also fared well in July, with a slopeside complex in Breckenridge bringing in one of the top sales for the month. A two-bedroom, two-bathroom condominium sold for $2.32 million last month, with access to Main Street Station in the front and the complex backing up to Peak 9.
The new development, titled Water House on Main Street, was completed in September 2015. Broker associate Troy Margelofsky, with Slifer, Smith and Frampton Real Estate, said of the 29 residences only three remain empty. He noted all of the condominiums sold at the listing price.
“We’re pretty proud of it,” he said. “It’s really the last place in Breckenridge where out your back door you can ski, hike and bike, and out your front door you’re on Main Street.”
Though Summit County has seen historically low inventory this year, Margelofsky noted he had seen some progress in certain price points this summer. Overall, Summit County saw a rapid turnaround in listings on the market. Breckenridge Associates Real Estate reported Breckenridge condominiums averaged just 85 days from list to close in July, less than half the time they spent on the market in July 2015.
“We’ve had a really busy winter and another busy summer; it seems like fall hasn’t really slowed yet either. It’s been a strong market,” Margelofsky said. “Things are priced right. Everything’s moving right now.”
For hungry trout, few meals compare to the giant salmonfly, a finger-size slug of protein that packs more meat in one gulp than a handful of lesser bugs.
“Think T-bone steaks on the river,” said Woodland Park fly fishing guide Robert Younghanz.
But on the Arkansas River, Pteronarcys californica has been missing from the menu for upward of a century, the casualty of a toxic past.
One state aquatic biologist hypothesizes they suffered a localized extinction, or extirpation, during an era when Leadville mine waste flowed unchecked into the Arkansas. That was before new water treatment measures initiated a turnaround that began in the early 1990s and eventually spawned one of the state’s most popular fisheries, reported The Gazette.
Now an effort to re-establish the bug, also known as the giant stonefly, seeks to add a fresh chapter to the unfolding success story. It has anglers sitting up and taking notice, even as it puts the river’s vaunted recovery to the test.
In 2012, Colorado Parks and Wildlife launched a three-year effort that scooped up an estimated 135,000 giant salmonfly nymphs from the Colorado River near Kremmling and deposited them at eight test sites near Salida.
After mounting what the agency calls the largest insect transplantation on record, a problem emerged at a critical juncture.
In 2015, a year after the last of the salmonfly deliveries to the Arkansas, state wildlife workers went back to the test areas to gauge their progress, searching the riverbank in 100-foot swaths, from the water’s edge to the willows.
After 58 man hours, they found no evidence that transplanted salmonflies had crawled out of the river to shed their exoskeletons and sprout wings, the culminating change in their roughly three-year life cycle.
Further searches this spring and summer turned up no adults and little more than a “handful” of exoskeletal chucks, said Greg Policky, the state aquatic biologist who devised the experiment.
The hunt to figure out why has Policky, a more than two-decade veteran of the agency’s Salida office, mulling troubling questions about a river he’s spent much of his career rehabilitating.
Of all the rivers in Colorado, the Arkansas holds special allure for anglers.
They come to enjoy a 102-mile stretch of Gold Medal water, the state’s designation for its highest-quality fisheries, recognizing those with a standing fish stock of 60 pounds per acre and at least 12 trout per acre larger than 14 inches.
By those standards, the Arkansas has the most prime fishing in Colorado.
When the river won its designation in 2014, it boosted the state’s total mileage of Gold Medal streams by a third, to 322 miles.
It wasn’t always so.
After mining came to Leadville in 1859, heavy metals began filtering into the Arkansas and ravaged its ecosystem, killing all fish around Leadville. Further downstream, near Salida, trout for decades lived for no more than two to three years — long enough to spawn, but too brief to acquire significant size.
“The Arkansas was a dead river,” said Jean Van Pelt of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
The river’s fate began to change in 1992, when two treatment facilities were constructed near Leadville to remove heavy metals like cadmium and zinc, generated on mine runoff, before they reached the river.
The effect was nearly immediate.
“It turned things around,” Policky said. “By 1994, we had a self-sustaining population of brown trout here.”
Better water quality cleared the way for two decades of piecemeal improvements, including efforts to restore the Arkansas to a natural state in areas where it had been straightened or otherwise modified, a common occurrence in the developing West.
Downstream near Salida, the effect of the river’s rehabilitation was profound, fattening up trout and extending their life expectancy to up to a decade.
In theory, it should have created trophy conditions for the giant salmonfly, too.
On rivers where Pteronarcys californica thrive, the anglers are as happy as the fish.
The bugs grow up to 2½ to 3 inches long, and their annual hatches in May and June induce feeding frenzies in streams across the Rocky Mountain West.
On the Frying Pan River, trout pick salmonflies off rocks jutting from the water until their bellies grow distended.
“You land them and they’re puking stoneflies out,” said Dave Way of the Western Anglers fly shop and guide service in Grand Junction.
A recent hatch in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison created a spectacle on par with the towering cliffs, said Bill Edrington, founder of Royal Gorge Anglers in Cañon City.
“It looked like thousands of hummingbirds in the sky, catching thermals and rising,” he said.
Unlike commercial rafting, an industry in which every customer is accounted for, fishing is harder to track. But it appears to be on the uptick, and a big part of the draw is the Gold Medal designation, said Bob Hamel, owner of Arkansas River Tours.
“It’s a marketing tool as well as a fact of the condition of the river,” Hamel said. “Obviously, people want to fish Gold Medal water. They want to go to Blue Ribbon rivers in Montana. It’s a draw. The good thing for us is it’s pretty much the whole river you can access, so it’s pretty spread out.”
Aside from their incredible size, the giant salmonfly is also known for its sensitivity to pollution.
Where mayflies and caddisflies tolerate some level of heavy metals, for example, conditions must be right for giant salmonflies, which prefer pristine, fast-moving, highly oxygenated streams with large cobble bottoms.
Reintroducing the giant salmonfly was meant as another effort to reverse decades-old missteps on the Arkansas.
During all three years the bugs were stocked, they hatched in mid-May, fueling hopes it would be a matter of time before they took off like “gangbusters,” he said.
Back-to-back years without hatches suggest the process will be slower than expected; it could also indicate the experiment has been a failure.
Policky urges patience.
Any number of factors could explain the bugs’ apparent absence, Policky said, including competition from other bugs, or the large amount of sediment that washes into the river from the overgrown forests cloaking the Collegiate Peaks.
But he acknowledges the problem could also be environmental. For that reason, the search to explain the bugs’ failure to take wing is centered on water quality data measured by sensors by the river’s headwaters near Leadville.
So far, the data show no evidence of heavy metals in the water, but the monitoring isn’t continuous, raising the possibility that some level of contamination could be finding its way back in.
Standing at the river bank, he mulled the possibilities.
“Did heavy metals rear their ugly head again? Did we have a release that we don’t know about? This is the canary in the coal mine.”
An army of fishing guides is keeping an eye out to see if the bug has gained a toehold somewhere out of sight.
Strictly speaking, the brown and rainbow trout in the Arkansas don’t need another insect; the river’s transformation spawned a “veritable buffet line” of options, Edrington said.