A group of more than 20 national conservationists, water policy stakeholders and other river advocates participated in a four-day raft trip through Yampa Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument as part of the Yampa River Awareness Project (YRAP), hosted by the local nonprofit Friends of the Yampa. This photo was taken at the top of Wagon Wheel Point overlooking Harding Hole on the Yampa.

Ben Saheb/Courtesy

A group of more than 20 national conservationists, water policy stakeholders and other river advocates participated in a four-day raft trip through Yampa Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument as part of the Yampa River Awareness Project (YRAP), hosted by the local nonprofit Friends of the Yampa. This photo was taken at the top of Wagon Wheel Point overlooking Harding Hole on the Yampa.

Yampa River Awareness Project brings river advocates down Yampa Canyon

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— While bicyclists were converging on town earlier this week as part of Ride The Rockies, another group of outdoor aficionados were here to help call attention to and raise awareness for one of Steamboat Springs and Northwest Colorado’s greatest resources — the Yampa River.

For the fourth time, local nonprofit Friends of the Yampa (FOY) hosted a group of more than 20 national conservationists, water policy stakeholders and other river advocates for a four-day raft trip through Yampa Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument as part of its Yampa River Awareness Project (YRAP).

After taking a fly-over of the Yampa Valley and Yampa Canyon the day before to see the waterway from the air, attendees packed dry bags and river gear to float the 71-mile stretch of river from Deerlodge Park west of Maybell to the Split Mountain Boat Ramp in Utah.

Included on the trip were representatives from such conservation organizations as American Rivers and Western Resource Advocates, scientists from the Nature Conservancy and stakeholders from Conservation Colorado, The Wilderness Society, Colorado Water Trust, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, the National Young Farmers’ Coalition, the Yampa River System Legacy Project and the Colorado River Water Conservation District. Local participants included former Routt County commissioner Ben Beall and former City Council president Ken Brenner.

Hosted by river outfitter O.A.R.S, the think-tank trip included campfire panel discussions on everything from preserving the Yampa’s flows and integrity of its bio-diversity to the river’s PBO (Programmatic Biological Opinion), flow management plans and much more. Pow-wow sessions were held each morning and evening at camp, as well as at key ecological sites along the river.

“One of Friends of the Yampa’s goals is to protect the free-flowing nature of the Yampa,” said FOY Board President Soren Jespersen. “You can’t protect something if you don’t have engaged constituents. This year our focus was bringing people who work in river advocacy and water policy programs. There’s an increasing threat that Front Range water interests are looking to the Yampa to solve their perceived water gaps.”

Included on the trip was 14-year Dinosaur National Monument botanist Tamara Naumann, who estimates she’s been down the river nearly 100 times. For her, the biggest threat isn’t protecting the river’s flows or trans-basin diversions, but “people not caring.”

“We need to figure out how to manage it into the next half-century,” she said. “There are many obligations that need to be met, and Colorado has an obligation to send water downstream. But while people’s objectives can be different, the end result can benefit everyone.”

Two other participants, former Adrift Adventures owner Pat Tierney and renowned photographer John Fielder, attended as part of their plans to produce a coffee table book entitled “The Yampa River: Wild and Free Flowing,” to be released in 2015. As part of their efforts before the trip through Dinosaur, they floated and photographed the river from Steamboat to Maybell.

“It’s a great story, and we’re excited to tell it,” said Tierney, adding that this year marked his 37th straight year running the canyon. “It will have great photographs and bring many of the river’s issues to light.”

International outfitter O.A.R.S, which with its day trips down Split Mountain Canyon takes nearly 1,000 people down the river every year, was more than happy to help the cause. It also offers its customers the option to donate a $1 additional fee per day that goes directly to YRAP efforts, which most customers choose to do

“It’s a privilege to outfit trips here, and this is a way we can kick back a little,” said Tyler Wendt, son of O.A.R.S founder George Wendt and the company’s operations manager. “We’re interested in the free-flowing nature of the Yampa and helping foster the connections that could lead to preserving it.”

It’s these connections that the YRAP concept is trying to create.

“We need to build more relationships with farmers and ranchers in the region and show them that our interests are aligned,” said Kate Greenberg of the National Young Farmer’s Coalition. “We’re not going to solve the problem in a week, but this is a great start.”

Take-homes included the need to get recreational and agricultural interests better aligned at both the local and Water Basin Roundtable level; creating an informal management plan for the Yampa’s resource values; and spreading the word on its unique bio-diversity.

“The science aspect of the endangered species that thrive in a free-flowing river environment is important,” said FOY board member and recreational representative for the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable Kent Vertrees, touting such endangered fish in the river as the Colorado pikeminnow. “You need it to back up water policy.”

In the end, after crashing through the dinosaur-sized waves of Split Mountain Canyon at a whopping 20,000 cfs, every participant left with a better understanding of what needs to be done to preserve such a treasure. And many participants stayed on — and were joined by nearly 50 other out-of-town river advocates — to attend the ensuing three-day seminar in Steamboat and tour the upper Yampa Basin as part of a program put together by Nicole Seltzer of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education.

“It was very apparent on the trip that everyone’s enthusiasm for the river is contagious,” Tierney said. “The key is figuring out how we can channel this enthusiasm into something that makes a difference. And a critical piece of all this is building relationships with all of the river’s stakeholders.”

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