Council to tackle tubing without direction from deadlocked panel

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— Steamboat Springs City Council could decide the fate of commercial tubing on a prime section of the Yampa River later this summer. But it will have to render its judgment without a recommendation from the Parks and Recreation Commission.

Director of Parks, Open Space and Recreation Chris Wilson said Thursday he is consulting with City Manager Paul Hughes about the best way to bring the tubing issue to City Council. Wilson said the Parks and Recreation Commission was unable on June 14 to break a deadlock on the question of whether to ban commercial tubing on the upper section of the Yampa's town stretch after this summer. With six commissioners in attendance, Wilson said the meeting stretched to 11:30 p.m. without a resolution to the question.

One thing the Parks and Recreation commissioners were able to agree unanimously on this month was a change to City Manager Rule 16-2-101. The rule allows the city to manage commercial tubing activities on the river. Now, commercial outfitters leading canoe and rafting trips, kayak classes, as well as fishing guides, will be subject to similar regulations to those imposed on tubers. And like the tubing companies, they will pay a fee toward a fund dedicated to learning more about the rivers hydrology and improving its health. For the past two years, tubing companies have paid 50 cents per customer into the fund. It now contains about $7,000, Director of Parks, Open Space and Recreation Chris Wilson said. Under the amended city manager rule, all of the river outfitters will now be contributing 5 percent of their receipts into the fund.

The commissioners voted on a series of motions, often with the result of two votes in favor, two against and two abstentions, Wilson said. Ultimately the commissioners agreed to recommend "no further regulations of the Yampa River at this time" and referred the issue to City Council.

"I was real disappointed we didn't make a recommendation to City Council," Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathi Sabel said Thursday. "We don't make the decision, but it's our job to make a recommendation. It's not parks and rec's job to decide or not to decide, but to be the front runner."

Sabel and Commissioner Gary Engle agree they are on opposite sides of the tubing debate, with the balance of the commission coming down somewhere in the middle open to imposing increased restrictions on commercial tubing, but stopping short of wanting to ban them from the upper stretch entirely.

"I'm opposed to any ban unless there's a viable alternative for tubing," Engle said. "I doubt there's a viable alternative for that experience and I'm not in favor of banning the tubing experience. "

Engle said he suspects the opposition to tubing is based more on the visual impact than anything more substantive, and he doesn't think it's right to ban commercial tubing simply because people don't like the sight of up to 900 tubes on the river in a day.

"The river's as clean as it's ever been. The fishing is as good as it's ever been," Engle said. "Show me some real harm."

Sabel said the issue would not have come before the commission unless a problem existed. She pointed out the city has had numerous phone calls from neighbors of the river concerned with noise, trespassing and littering.

"If there were 2,000 hot dog vendors on the core trail, we wouldn't have second thoughts about removing some," Sabel said.

The commission is not contemplating banning private individuals from floating the upper stretch on their own, just restricting commercial operations further. The city's ability to administer commercial tubing is predicated on the fact that it owns the land where the popular put-ins and take-outs are located.

The stretch of the river in question extends from the city water infiltration gallery behind the Super 8, at the upstream end, down to the Fifth Street Bridge. The recommended change would require commercial tubers to operate downstream from Fifth Street as of September.

Effectively, that means the change would hit during the tubing season in 2001. It would also remove commercial tubing from the upstream stretch where federal dollars in the form of state Fishing is Fun grants have been used to improve trout habitat.

The city has been working with different user groups to manage tubing for two years.

The Yampa Valley FlyFishers, who have played an instrumental role in obtaining and implementing the grants, have been participating with the understanding that, ultimately, tubing would move downstream, Wilson said. The fly fishers assert that commercial tubing, as sanctioned by the city, violates its grant contracts with the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

"Whether or not the commercial tubing uses area violation of our contract with the Colorado Division of Wildlife/Fish and Wildlife Service, staff recommends the separation of these uses for the 2001 season," Wilson wrote in a memo to the Parks and Recreation Commission. "Rather than having lengthy discussion on the issue with state and federal agencies, staff believes that this compromise best fits the community's needs."

Sabel said she believes the city should avoid the possibility of litigation over the Fishing is Fun contracts, but Engle, who is an attorney, says he's read the contracts and doesn't think they are clear enough on the question of commercial uses to drive the city to taking action as drastic as a tubing ban.

The commission had hoped to get a legal opinion on the implications of the Fishing is Fun contracts from City Attorney Tony Lettunich. However, Wilson said Lettunich believes under his arrangement with City Council, it is not proper for him to advise the commission.

Sabel says she has nothing against the tubing companies and believes they have done a good job of supervising and educating their clients. However, she doesn't believe they've done enough to be pro-active about making river improvements the way the fly fishers have.

Engle says he doesn't think the burden of spreading out recreational use on the Yampa should fall on the shoulders of the tubing companies.

Wilson has already acted on a recommendation from the Trails and River Committee and hired Mark Oliver of Basin Hydrology to study river restoration and improvements from the Thirteenth Street Bridge downstream to the Stockbridge Multi Modal Center.

In connection with that effort, Oliver will be here on July 14 to lead tours of the river for recreational users. Tubers will meet from 8 a.m. until 11 a.m., kayakers and canoe paddlers will meet from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. and fly fishers will meet from 2 to 5 p.m.

Watch Steamboat Today for more details, or call the parks and recreation office at 879-4300.

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210, or e-mail tomross@amigo.net

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