The Dolores area experienced successes and controversy in 2017. News ran the gamut, from land use, a troubled playground, bears and wildfires, to new health clinics, record winter snows and an epic river season. New business came in, and others closed their doors, but in the end the town retained its tenacious spirit and rugged independence that is the tradition of Colorado mountain towns.
The story that got the most attention in Dolores was the closing of the popular Ron Kotarski Jr., playground in Joe Rowell Park.
Following a tour by the Town Board and staff on Sept. 11, the board unanimously voted to close the 16-year old playground, citing equipment safety concerns. The town said that despite its best efforts, the rapid deterioration and weathering of the mostly wood structures made it difficult and too expensive to keep up with maintenance.
Town trustees have since voted to tear the playground down, pending approval from Great Outdoors Colorado, which contributed a $100,000 grant for the project 16 years ago.
The decision to close the playground was questioned by many residents, and they packed several town meetings to voice their concerns. The Dolores Playground Group organized to raise funds and either save or replace the structures. Many urged that a study be conducted to determine if it could be repaired, and the Town Board hired the original builders to conduct an assessment that took place Nov. 8. Leathers and Associates concluded the equipment it was in “fair to poor” condition. They outlined many issues, and said that although the structure could be repaired, it would be more cost effective to build a new one.
Playground advocates pushed the board to allow local contractors to repair the structure, which they believed could be done at a more affordable cost. But the town has denied the request, citing insurance and liability concerns. The Town Board and staff plan to seek grant funding to build a new playground, and they formed a parks advisory committee to assist with planning the project.
In September, the Dolores school district received a $478,000 grant from the Colorado Health Foundation to build an on-campus health clinic.
The clinic will be open to the public, although its primary focus will be on treating students. An architect has been hired, and construction is expected to begin in spring. The preliminary plan is to build an extension on the south end of the sixth-grade corner of the elementary school.
In August, the Dolores Re-4 School District opened a new infant and toddler center to serve students between the ages of 6 weeks and 3 years old.
The center was funded by a $23,000 grant from the Buell Foundation and Colorado Department of Education. Another $23,000 worth of free labor, cash and materials were donated by local businesses, individuals, the school and town government. The children’s school is in a large remodeled modular building donated by the school district and moved next door to the Teddy Bear preschool at 1550 Hillside Drive.
Education professor Kay Phelps and construction company owner Casey McClellan were both elected to the Dolores School Board in the November election.
The two were the top vote-getters out of seven candidates, with Phelps earning 474 votes and McClellan earning 387 votes. Phelps has had a lifetime career in education and is currently a professor of teacher education at Fort Lewis College. McClellan owns McStone Aggregates, a local construction business. He decided to run for school board because he wants to help raise the school’s academic performance.
The Dolores area had a few fires this summer and fall.
The East Rim Fire was triggered by lightning July 2 on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. and Forest Service land on the east rim of the Dolores River Canyon, 10 miles northeast of Dove Creek. By July 12, it had grown to 700 acres. At one point, 77 people were assigned to the fire. In late August, the Secret Canyon Fire burned 115 acres in a remote areas of the Dolores River Canyon, 9 miles east of Dove Creek. About 60 firefighters, including hand crews, five fire engines, a water tender and a helicopter, initially were assigned to the fire. The Draw Fire in early September in the Boggy Draw area 8 miles northeast of Dolores consumed a total of about 1,400 acres in an area bordered by Forest Roads 528 and 527. Because the roads helped contain the flames, the fire was allowed to burn for beneficial forest purposes such as reducing accumulated forest debris and thinning of overgrown oak brush stands.
Above-average snowpack last winter triggered a rarely seen extended whitewater release on the Dolores River in 2017 below McPhee Dam that lasted 85 days. An estimated 24,000 boaters flocked to the 200 miles of river between March 29 and mid-June, with 56,000 visitor days. For about 10 days, the river ran at a thrilling 2,000 cubic feet per second, only to be outdone by a first-ever 4,000 cfs release for three days in mid-May. The big water season benefited the ecological needs of the river as well, said Celine Hawkins of The Nature Conservancy, who along with others, conducted numerous studies throughout the whitewater spill. The flushing flows benefited native fish by scouring out pools, creating more room for them to survive low flow seasons.
Higher flows also create an exchange of nutrients between the river channel and the higher flood plain, promoting cottonwood growth and recharging the alluvial groundwater.
“We had five weeks of peak flows, which had not happened in 10 years,” Hawkins said.
In November, a new travel plan for the Rico-West Dolores area of the San Juan National Forest was released that reduces single-track motorcycle access in order to benefit wildlife habitat, hunters and quiet recreation users.
The preliminary decision defines routes for motorized recreation on forest roads and trails in the area north of Dolores, including Bear Creek, Taylor Mesa, Calico National Recreation Trail, Bolam Pass, Divide Road and Groundhog Point. Under the new rules, motorized use will no longer be allowed on the Little Bear trail and most of the main Bear Creek trail, including the lower portion. Near Rico, the Burnett Creek, Horse Creek and Ryman Creek trails will all be closed to motorized use. West of Forest Road 471, the Winter Trail and lower portions of the East and West Fall Creek trails will also be closed to motorized uses.
In all, the draft decision would remove motorized use from 31 miles of single-track motorized trail at various locations.
The plan adds back some of the lost motorized trails by incorporating 12 new miles of trail for ATV and side-by-side UTV use in the Lone Cone, Groundhog and Black Mesa areas. Single-track motorized use has also been added to the Loading Pen No. 738 trail. And at Bolam Pass, a section of Forest Road 578B will be converted to single-track motorized to provide connection to the East Fork trail.
Seasonal timing restrictions for motor vehicle use on trails are a new change. Motor vehicle use of trails would be prohibited from Nov. 1 to May 31, except in the Black Mesa area, where motorized trail riding would be prohibited from Sept. 9 to May 31. Forest Road 545J would retain its designation for all types of motor vehicle use. The timing restrictions do not apply to forest roads open to the public.
In November, the Dolores Ranger District released a preliminary environmental assessment for the Boggy Draw Trails expansion project.
The project would add about 25 miles of nonmotorized trails to the trails system, north of Dolores. The proposed new trails include Horse Camp Trail (6.8 miles), McNeil Trail (5.3 miles), String Bean Trail (4.2 miles), and Nth Trail (7.1 miles), plus connectors. “They go from cruisers to more technical,” he said. “The new trails are in response to the desires of locals and visitors to have different options and experiences.”
In August, to protect people and bears, the Dolores Town Board passed an emergency ordinance requiring bear-resistant trash containers for all residents and businesses in town. Since the beginning of July, five bears have been raiding trash bins in town, said Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin, and officials want to stop the habit before it becomes a bigger problem. Nowlin and his deputies responded to nighttime calls and chased bears off, sometimes using rubber bullets and deploying stun guns. Residents woke up to trash-strewn streets for several weeks. A spring freeze damaged the wild acorn crop, a major food source for black bears, and bears were looking for alternative calories to gain the weight needed for hibernation.
The Nature Center at Butler Corner north of Dolores began to take shape with the construction of a visitors center. The $75,000 center will feature classroom space as well as equipment, including binoculars, plant and animal guides and other literature, microscopes, magnifying glasses and snowshoes to help teachers engage their students in outdoor learning.
Retired Dolores librarian and educator Kathie Butler started the nature center in 2016 on her 263-acre family ranch, and it is gaining steam, thanks in part to a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado.
A home explosion in Rico on Jan. 23 killed resident Lisa Salliby, 42. Officials suspected a propane leak caused a buildup of gas that was ignited by a spark. Southwest Health System began building a new community health clinic at 601 Central Ave. The Dolores Public Library promoted longtime employee Diana Donohue to the position of director.Three Bureau of Land Management staffers received a Valor Award for their successful efforts to save a co-workers life. The Dolores River Anglers Chapter of Trout Unlimited received an Exemplary Project Award for a long-term climate change study on the Upper Dolores River.Motus, a high-end brand of American made motorcycles, opened a dealership near Dolores. In November, officers deployed a spike strip and fired a stun gun and a firearm before arresting a man who fled a traffic stop on Colorado Highway 184 into Dolores. After running over spikes, the New Mexico man drove on flat tires. A Cortez policeman positioned in Dolores shot at the vehicle, disabling it, and the man was arrested.