River Values

By Gary Wockner


On a beautiful, sunny, Colorado day a few weeks ago, my family and I went on a bicycle ride west of town along the Poudre River bike path. What an extraordinary resource!

The path now extends all the way to Vern’s in LaPorte and will soon be extended farther beside the river near Watson Lake. It follows the river in some spots, winds around through the floodplain in others, all the while surrounded by some version of nature even amidst heavy commercial and industrial uses.

In a few sections, the path is literally suspended above the river by a network of bridges. My family and I were able to peer down into the Poudre as if gliding along in a glass-bottom boat. We saw several small trout swim by, and upstream a bit, we were lucky enough to see a beaver swimming along in a deeper pool.

The path, no doubt, cost a few million dollars to build, and as it is extended ever-farther east and west, it will cost a few million more as well as many thousands per year for upkeep and maintenance. It thrills me to live and raise my family in a place that values this natural resource with such philosophic and financial gusto. Such values are the very core of what I’d like to pass on to my children and the generation of young people around us.

I’d like to congratulate the city leadership that had the vision and foresight to build and extend this path. We are lucky.

Indeed, what we see more and more around Larimer County and much of Colorado is this very same vision, foresight and luck. From the preservation of open space to the protection of native wildlife to the building of recreational trails, here in the New West, a new bunch of residents and their leaders are forging a new landscape that places the highest possible value on nature preservation and restoration and on the recreational opportunities nature provides.

Of course, this wasn’t always so. Along the Poudre are many examples of Old West ways of thinking. Nearer to downtown, areas still exist where cement was dumped straight onto the riverbanks and over the streambed. And just a bit to the north around the Northside Aztlan Community Center used to be the old city dump. Both of these examples represent Old West places where rivers were dumping grounds and where water and riparian areas were completely devalued resources.

But in those very areas of the Poudre and all along the 10-mile stretch that runs from LaPorte out to Interstate 25, the city and many community volunteers busy themselves by cleaning up our society’s past mistakes. Water, riparian areas and the wildlife that live in both are all newly valued by our Larimer County culture.

And so it is with a bitter sense of irony here in Fort Collins that at the very time in the city’s history where our citizens and leaders put our minds and checkbooks into the Poudre River and the natural and recreational opportunities around it, we are also considering a network of dams upstream that would all but drain dry the very resource we have spent so lavishly to showcase and enjoy.

After these dams are built, the riverbed will remain almost dry year-round through town and will look much like the trickle it is now in the middle of winter. The wildlife around it, too, will likely dry up, as will many of our recreational opportunities.

As my family and I ride our bikes along the river, we often stop and let the children play. Their favorite games involve making boats out of logs and watching the current snatch the boat and carry it downstream. As they play, my wife and I watch and listen to the current racing by, and like the children, we are enlivened by the flowing river.

Let’s think hard about the decision to build new dams on the Poudre. The river, the bike path and many other natural resources around the county are the very reasons most of us call this place home. A lavish bike path along a dry riverbed will have a rather pitiful appeal, and those new dams might be the very mistakes our children, and grandchildren, will have to clean up.


Gary Wockner, Ph.D., www.garywockner.com, is a writer and ecologist in Fort Collins.

Originally published Monday, January 24, 2005