Town advisory group tackles tough questions about summer use in prized Cucumber Gulch wetlands open space parcel
By Bob Berwyn
BRECKENRIDGE — The town’s open space advisory group Monday evening grappled with the tough question of how to balance preservation of valuable Cucumber Gulch wetlands with increased recreational demand in the town.
The discussion stemmed from a request from the town council for input preceding a special April 21 council session, when council members will consider a proposal from Breckenridge Ski Area to operate the BreckConnect gondola in the summer.
The town has designated the 77-acre Cucumber Gulch area as a wildlife preserve. The forests, ponds and wetlands are home to rare boreal toads, calving moose, elk and a great variety of birds. It’s a key wildlife oasis in the urbanized Upper Blue, and with development on all sides, the issue of recreational use has long been a hot topic. The fundamental town laws that govern management of the area emphasize preservation of natural resource values, balanced with providing opportunities for access and education.
The meeting began with three of the commissioners acknowledging ties with Vail Resorts. Two, Scott Yule and Dennis Kuhn, work directly for the ski company, while another, Erin Hunter, works for a legal firm that represents the resort on certain issues. Hunter recused herself from the discussion, while the other two participated with the consent of the other members.
The resort also wants to offer guided hiking tours in Cucumber Gulch, so the first question on the agenda was weather the town should consider any commercial operations on town-owned open space. The advisory group was split, with a couple of members questioning the concept of commercial use, while others said that having supervised visitation in Cucumber Gulch is better than a free-for-all.
“Philosophically, I’m struggling with commercial, for-profit use of publicly owned land by another entity that already controls a significant amount of land,” said Jennifer McAtamney, who is the town council representative on the open space advisory group. “I’d be looking for a partnership,” McAtamney said, adding that she’d like to see at least part of the fee for the guided hikes — $14 for adults, $9 for kids — going back to help with preservation of the area.
Resort representatives said the hikes aren’t going to generate significant revenue. The fees basically would cover the cost of paying the guides, and the town gets a 5 percent commission. In the end, the advisory board seemed to find consensus on allowing some restricted and carefully managed commercial access to the area.
Then, they tried to answer the question of how much. Two commission members, McAtamney and Mona Merrill, leaned toward the side of caution and more limited use, suggesting that the resort be limited to one hike per week. Dennis Kuhn Scott Yule, both resort employees, said they would support two resort-led hikes per week. Devon O’Neil, the newest member of the group, said that, by offering one hike per week, the resort could bill access to the gulch as an “exclusive” experience.
Questions about cumulative impacts surfaced repeatedly, as the open space commissioners that the resort hikes would add to the general use already occurring in the area. Merrill advocated for a mid-season update on use and on attaching protective conditions to any permit the town might issue.
Kuhn and Yule both said there needs to be more monitoring of Cucumber Gulch, with Kuhn calling on the resort to work with the town on crafting an education message for the guides and hikers. Yule said he’d like to see more detailed information on the current status of wildlife in the area.
The town has eight years of biological information based on extensive surveys and field research documenting wildlife use, including nesting birds, the status of beavers and boreal toads. Additionally, motion-sensor cameras have been used to document moose in the area, including a calf.
Next up to bat is the town council, meeting with the resort in a special April 21 work session, to try and nail down some of the details of summer use, including gondola operating hours.