DINOSAUR NATIONAL MONUMENT – The 10 rafts are attached to the banks of the Green River. The tents are up. The sun sets over the sandstone walls of the canyon. With 30 rafters digging into steaming chili pods, it’s time to plan for the future.
How can northwest Colorado attract and manage visitors, protect natural landscapes like the breathtaking Gates of Lodore on the Green River, and sustain an economy poised for the impending demise of coal mining?
“What are we left with when our money runs out?” Asks Jennifer Holloway, executive director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce, where she grew up. “We have an amazing experience that can change lives. How can we share that, but also protect it? “
Three years ago, Moffat County “had some challenges with our identity,” says Holloway, describing how her father left the family farm when she was little to work in the higher-paying coal mines. “Not everyone had a coal job, but we focused on coal and neglected other things.”
These other things – like tourism, farming and outdoor recreation – are no longer neglected. It’s been a year since Tri-State Generation and Transmission and Xcel Energy announced they would close their coal-fired power plants and nearby coal mines in 2028. The closings will cost up to 800 jobs in northwest Colorado.
A community-based transition plan focuses on expanding the region’s tourism and recreational facilities while protecting the agricultural heritage and natural resources. The communities of Moffat County, downstream from the bustling seaside resort of Steamboat Springs, are essentially a blank slate. They look to other Western Slope communities and hope to learn lessons about what works and what doesn’t. And the wheels turn.
“Our community is about to do great things, transformative things,” says Holloway.
Craig has a federal grant of 1.8 million. An additional phase of the plan would build a path connecting Craig to the Yampa River.
Last year the City of Craig bought the historic Yampa building from the Moffat County School District. The historic building has been converted into a visitor center as well as a home for artists, a senior center and several local nonprofit and private companies.
Josh Veenstra said investing in the river will help shape a new identity for Craig and northwest Colorado.
“This is the last stop before the wilderness begins,” says the co-owner of Good Vibes River Gear, who was born and raised in Craig and has worked in both the coal mines and the power plant.
Veenstra learned to sew at the power station and now he and his wife Maegan sew and sell all kinds of handmade, heavy-duty mesh bags and equipment for paddlers. They also own the Good Vibes River Gear Shop in Craig.
“This outdoor recreation is a hit and coming fast,” says veteran Rafter Veenstra, who fears that visitor recreation could harm resources and experiences if the community doesn’t plan. “We have always lived in this boom-bust cycle, which may not be the best path for us. We may have to grow a little more slowly, but in a more sustainable way. “
In the first place for the state’s new rural aid program
Nathan Fey, director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, has joined the Office of Economic Development and International Trade to recruit University of Colorado students to map Moffat County’s recreational facilities as well as business infrastructure.
This case study will feed into a larger project that will involve local residents in shaping the presentation of Northwest Colorado for both visitors and outdoor recreational businesses. This larger project is part of Colorado’s new Rural Technical Assistance Program (RTAP), which provides technical education to rural communities that uses online tools to help community leaders identify needs and create a plan for future growth. The second phase of the rural program includes technical assistance with planning and finally the state helps the municipality implement its strategic plan.
Moffat County will be among the first communities to undergo the new rural technical assistance program.
For example, let’s say a snowmobile company or manufacturer approaches the state with an idea of relocating to Colorado. Fey can propose to Craig and Moffat Counties and provide maps of snow trail systems for the company to test designs on, as well as insights into supply chain management, broadband, and commercial real estate. And residents of the community have already expressed an interest in welcoming this type of company.
The rural aid program would enable Moffat County to find a business “that would fit the community without necessarily affecting the community culture,” says Fey.
“I think communities like Craig have a ton of cash now,” says Fey, who dips his oars in the water and suggests a way to spend it on the spot – do the long-sought Yampa Valley Trail. “We’re sitting on money that could do that.”
Opportunity for proactive development
Tourist communities go through three cycles of development: preparing for visitors, entertaining visitors, and managing their impact when they arrive en masse.
“I think Moffat County is ready for all three,” said Andrew Grossmann, director of destination development for the Colorado Tourism Office.
But before a plan is initiated, according to Grossmann, the residents have to weigh and outline their expectations and wishes for an economy that is partially geared towards visitors.
“I think places like this have the opportunity to proactively develop and rethink what it means to be successful,” says Grossmann, who suggests taking new indicators into account when building a dynamic tourism economy.
Rafters navigate Winnie’s Rapids in the Gates of Lodore section of the Green River. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
As he gazes at massive sandstone cliffs over the Green River near its confluence with the Yampa River, he puzzles what a changing rating for tourism economies might look like. Does it attract wealthier visitors who leave more money in the community? But what if those high rollers arrive in a private jet and emit so much more CO2 than a less affluent visitor? One thing is going away: the former yardstick for success, which was based solely on visitor numbers.
“Maybe it’s time to apply a triple bottom line that takes into account the mood of the residents, the carbon footprint and the economic benefits?” Says Großmann. “We have to shift our performance promise again.”
Jon Miller, who grew up in Craig, is on the raft with Grossmann. He has some ideas on how to better involve the locals in the planning and management of outdoor recreational activities in northwest Colorado. Take them outside first when they are young.
Miller is helping build a 50,000 square foot skate park that would be the largest in Colorado. His Craig Skatepark Alliance organizes supporters and lobbies for government support.
“I imagine the skate park that connects our youth with nature and nature,” says Miller, who grew up as a skater in Craig.
Donors, like the anonymous benefactor who recently donated $ 23 million to the Yampa Valley Housing Authority for the purchase of 536 acres west of Steamboat Springs, are recognizing the impact of moving dollars beyond resort communities, said Tim Wohlgenant, executive director of the Yampa Valley Community Foundation.
“This is a networked ecosystem and they understand that,” he says.
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The list of donors who support the foundation values leadership skills, and Wohlgenant says his goal is to highlight local leaders outside of Steamboat. More of his donors are queuing to support community and community service in places like Craig, Meeker, and across Moffat County.
“Our job is to help them see leaders in places they may not be so familiar with,” he says. “The executives who really make a difference inspire them. It’s like investing in a start-up in a way. “
Paul Scolari, the superintendent of Dinosaur National Monument, says his approach to managing the National Park Service property is to support the work and desires of the local community. He demonstrated this community approach that day by spending 30 minutes in a downpour, holding an umbrella over the lunch team, and then cooking the team chili on the second night of the rafting trip.
Just take a look around this gathering, says Scolari, referring to the circle of land managers, conservationists, local entrepreneurs and champions for economic development who are all working to make northwest Colorado grow sustainably.
“This group represents a lot of power,” says Scolari. “If we can just get ourselves on the same page, we can do amazing things. If we all work together, it’s a hell of a force to make these changes happen. “
Echo Park section of the Dinosaur National Monument. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
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