Mayor Bob Risch had one thing to say after the closing of the $277,000 deal at a title company office in Ridgway last Friday, May 11.
“What a relief!”
The acquisition includes a significant chunk of the Ice Park within the Uncompahgre Gorge, including many climbing areas as well as the area where most Ouray Ice Festival activities happen.
When Risch first got involved in the city’s efforts to acquire the land in 1998, he said, “I honestly thought within a year it would be all done.”
Fourteen years later, it’s finally over. “There have been a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “Misfires on the size of the land, appraised values, what we can afford. It was really a pleasure to finally be in a position to sign the paperwork.”
The transaction marks a new era for both the City of Ouray and Ouray Ice Park, Inc. (OIPI), the nonprofit organization that oversees the day-to-day operations of the park, by greatly simplifying a complex land use arrangement which had become increasingly burdensome for all parties and hindered Park development.
While playing a crucial role in the success of the Ouray Ice Park for 18 years, the USFS has made it clear that as a multiple-use organization managing three million acres on the Gunnison National Forest alone, it was not interested in being the long-term manager of its 24-acre inholding within the Ice Park.
Now, with the USFS and its multiple layers of federal bureaucracy bowing out of the picture, the remaining stakeholders – the City of Ouray, Ouray County and Eric Jacobson who owns the Ouray Hydroelectric Plant and much of the land and infrastructure along the rim of the Uncompahgre Gorge – are all enthusiastic supporters of the ongoing success at the park.
The City of Ouray gained administrative oversight of the Ice Park from Ouray County about two years ago. Operational agreements the City has in place with OIPI and San Juan Mountain Guides (the Ice Park’s guiding concessionaire) will remain in place.
“It’s a big day,” said OIPI Board President Mike MacLeod of the successful land transfer. “To a certain degree, from a day-to-day operational standpoint it doesn’t change a whole lot; our job is still to maintain the park and keep doing what we’ve been doing. Longterm, we’re really excited to continue building a great relationship with the City of Ouray.”
MacLeod praised the political will of the Ouray City Council and city staff over the years to usher the ice park sale over many hurdles to its final successful outcome. “Council really gets it,” he said. “It’s a big economic driver for the city.”
One definite bonus to the city obtaining jurisdiction over the Forest Service land within the Ice Park is that there will no longer be a need to go through an annual permitting process with the federal agency. “There is a lot of time and expense involved with the permits,” MacLeod said. “Our relationship with the USFS was great, but it was a drag to do the permits every year. For us, and for them too. It will be nice to not have to do that anymore.”
Another bonus is that there is now more potential for growth within the Ice Park.
“We’re looking into expanding our terrain and adopting more unique and creative long-term uses of the resource,” MacLeod said. “It’s something that can be on the table now, putting in more infrastructure. It’s an exciting time and we’re looking forward to getting in on the next phase of management of the park.”
Risch, who is deeply involved in the Ouray Trail Group and its efforts to develop the Ouray Perimeter Trail, is excited at the new potential for re-routing a portion of the trail to pass through the Ice Park, crossing the Uncompahgre Gorge on a narrow footbridge near the Ouray Hydro Dam.
When the city initially contemplated acquiring the Ice Park property from the USFS, about 40 acres were at play. An assessment of that land came in far higher than the city was willing to pay, so several years ago, the parcel was scaled back to its current dimensions of 24 acres, which includes the Ice Park and the city’s adjacent shooting range.
A new appraisal of this parcel took several years to work itself out. “We hung in there, the city hung in there, and we finally got a value that was something they could live with,” said USFS Lands Forester Jim Dunn, who is based in Delta and has been involved in the Ice Park transfer since its inception.
Initially, the plan was to do a land exchange for a number of mining claims the city owned in Yankee Boy Basin, but after several years of actively trying to figure that out and running into problems, the Forest Service suggested a Townsite Act instead – a fairly unusual arrangement in which a municipality purchases land from the Forest Service outright.
“Starting in 2005, we got very active in trying to figure out how to make that happen,” Dunn recalled. “The Forest Service doesn’t give property away. We generally don’t sell it either; we try to manage it in a way that the public gets a benefit. But, we concluded the city needed to own the property and that it was a public benefit because they could better manage it than the Forest Service could.”
The city applied for and received a $193,000 Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) grant to help cover the purchase. The grant was awarded last December, setting the wheels in motion for last week’s closing.
“We’re very happy because the Ice Park deserved to be in the City of Ouray,” Dunn said. “They’re going to manage it in a way that helps serve them. It has been a lengthy process; but sometimes land adjustments take quite a while for a federal agency to sort out. I think it’s a win-win for both entities.”
Jacobson is equally enthusiastic about the city’s acquisition. “I think it is every bit as important to Ouray as Bear Creek is to Telluride,” he observed. “I’m very happy to think they’ll be able to expand the Ice Park.”
Jacobson acquired his interests in what is now the Ouray Ice Park in 1991. He was the sole pre-qualified bidder on the Ouray Hydroelectric Plant and its assets when former owner Colorado Ute went bankrupt. For a $10 bid, he ended up not only with a century-old 830kW hydro plant on the banks of the Uncompahgre River in Ouray, but also with 50 acres of land skirting the flanks of the Uncompahgre Gorge, along which a 6,130-foot-long pressure pipeline called a penstock delivers water from an upstream reservoir to the powerhouse’s turbine-generating units.
A year or so after Jacobson acquired all this anachronistic splendor, local hotelier and attorney Gary Wild approached him with the idea of tapping into the penstock to spray water down the sides of the Uncompahgre Gorge with a garden hose and letting it freeze into climbable ice.
Jacobson said “Go for it.” More importantly, he then allowed climbers to access this icy playground via his property in the gorge.
As the park has grown and evolved over the years to encompass city, county and Forest Service property, Jacobson has remained a willing partner.
For a dollar a year, the city now leases and administers Jacobson’s land within the Ice Park for public recreation purposes. Jacobson is shielded from liability by the State of Colorado’s Recreational Use Statute, which protects landowners who do not charge the public to use their property for recreational purposes.
The city’s current easement agreement with Jacobson is good through 2015.
“I think it’s a great model,” Jacobson said. “You’d think ice climbers and hydro would have an antipathy but we’ve very happily coexisted.
To meet the USFS’s quarter-million-dollar asking price, the City of Ouray pooled together its GOCO grant with $35,000 earmarked for the Ice Park acquisition years ago from the sale of the mining claims in Yankee Boy Basin that were originally intended for the failed land swap. OIPI pledged a modest contribution of about $6,000, raised during this year’s Ouray Ice Festival. The remainder came out of the City of Ouray’s 2012 budget.
It’s a significant investment, but well worth it in the eyes of city government and business leaders.
“As a kid who grew up here and used to sled on Main Street in the winter, I can attest that the impact of the Ice Park is huge,” said Ouray Chalet proprietor Lora Slawitschka.
Anecdotally, the hardest thing to find in Ouray in the winter, before the Ice Park opened, was a hotel that was open. “You would go into the Portal (Ouray’s bar of the day), and somebody would know somebody who would open up a room for the night,” long-time local ice climber (and now world-class mountaineer) Vince Anderson recalled.
Now, most hotels in town (including Slawitschka’s) stay open year-round. Shops and restaurants have followed suit, many staying open to serve the ice-climbing crowd through the winter months.
Since 1994, tourism in winter months in Ouray has significantly increased the overall revenue base of the area, with gains greater than 140 percent in lodging taxes and 82 percent in sales taxes for the winter months of December, January, February, and March.
Business owners attest that even in the down economy of the past several years, ice climbers continue to flock to the area with full wallets, big appetites and high spirits.
“It’s become so obvious the Ice Park is such an important part of our economy and reputation; it makes our winter season for us,” Risch said