Hayden eyes heritage tourism attractions

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The list of natural and historical features in Routt County and Northwest Colorado that could interest visitors seems endless.

The region is one of the most coal-rich in the nation. It also hosts the largest elk herd in the nation, a plethora of bird-watching opportunities and historical building blocks of the American quarter horse breed -- just to name a few.

But determining which features within this treasure trove of assets residents are willing and ready to share with visitors is another question entirely.

Community leaders and residents gathered to discuss that question at Yampa River State Park last week at one of a series of meetings held in Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties.

The meetings were part of a regional effort to explore cultural heritage tourism and ways to tap into the growing number of visitors who connect with places through history and culture rather than just recreation.

Spearheaded by the Yampa Valley Economic Development Council and other organizations, the effort will continue with more meetings into the spring and summer. Communities eventually plan to develop brochures, maps, guides, signs and other marketing tools to attract heritage tourists.

"Cultural heritage travelers are generally older, wealthier and more educated than other travelers," tourism development expert Judy Walden said at the Hayden meeting.

A fair number of heritage tourists already travel to or pass through Northwest Colorado.

Walden pointed to a study by Colorado State University, which asked willing tourists at the state's eight visitor centers to fill out questionnaires. The study showed travelers at the Dinosaur visitor center, on average, had higher personal incomes and spent more on their vacations than travelers at other visitor centers.

"Now we have affirmation those people are traveling in the region," Walden said.

The challenge is keeping tourists here longer by giving them information and access to the unique stories that make up places such as West Routt County, she said.

Participants at the Hayden meeting discussed how some areas of interest, such as the Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch, the Hayden Heritage Center and Yampa River State Park, are ready for visitors.

Telling the story of the community's mining heritage -- from the first coal mines to current mining operations and the Hayden Power Station -- would require more work in devising tours and information readily available to tourists looking for something to do.

Residents at the meeting also pointed to wildlife -- particularly birds -- as a tourist attraction.

Hundreds of bird-watchers, including people on various commercial tours, visit West Routt County every year to see Columbian sage grouse, said Colorado Division of Wildlife representative Jim Haskins.

These "birders" include visitors from across the nation and world who typically tour all four corners of the state looking for birds.

Right now, they don't have enough information to take advantage of Routt County's many other birds, including bald eagles, blue herons, sandhill cranes and rare songbirds, Haskins said.

He suggested that a Web site could give birders day-by-day information about what birds are in the area and where people can see them.

"You need something they can access," Haskins said. "If you have that information, you'll keep them here; otherwise they're going to go down to Gunnison to see the Gunnison sage grouse."

The many elk in the region, including the world's largest herd in the Flat Tops, also are another wildlife asset. However, viewing or photographing the elk, as well as many of the birds, requires access to private land, he said.

That could be a big boon for landowners, who could reap profits from wildlife tours and photographers, instead of delegating that money to out-of-town tour operators, said Winnie DelliQuadri, of the city of Steamboat Springs.

Walden emphasized that these are questions communities need to think about carefully.

"The opportunity is there, it's up to you to share it or not," she said.

Northwest Colorado communities will present their assets at a regional cultural heritage tourism meeting to be held March 11 in Craig. The meeting will be from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Museum of Northwest Colorado, 590 Yampa Ave.

The meeting is open to anybody interested in cultural heritage tourism. For more information or to RSVP, call DelliQuadri at 871-8257.

-- To reach Tamera Manzanares, call 871-4204 or e-mail tmanzanares@steamboatpilot.com

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