November 2004

Should McPhee be a state park?

Planners envision new amenities, new management, new fees

By Gail Binkly

The main entrance to McPhee Reservoir lies off Highway 184 and County Road 25. Drive down the winding ribbon and you’ll come to a single outbuilding and a boat ramp - no convenience store, no marina, no rentals. You can put your craft in the water without paying a dime.

All that would change under a set of recommendations recently presented to the Mancos-Dolores District of the San Juan National Forest, which manages recreation at the lake. A new, $1.3 million marina with breakwater, piers and a store would be built at McPhee and the lake would become a state park under the proposal, finalized in October by the McPhee Recreation Plan Committee.

Planners hope the lake, now hosting perhaps 35,000 visitors a year, will double or triple its visitation. They envision McPhee as the centerpiece in a glittering network of trails and recreation sites extending north to Lone Mesa State Park and bringing more visitors and greater prosperity to Montezuma County.

Their hopes were buoyed by a report completed this fall by the Abonmarche Group, a Michigan-based consulting firm, which found that a new marina could be a “vital component of what will be a very strong recreation economy in this area.”

The catch is that the marina will have to be publicly funded, the consultant and the planning group agree.

And several major questions remain. Will locals accept McPhee as a state park, with all the accompanying fees that means? Can a marina at McPhee achieve economic success? And how much more tourism and development do area residents want?

An empty lake

The McPhee Recreation Plan Committee has been meeting for nearly two years. Its formation was prompted by a visit from members of the Colorado Governor’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade in October 2002. Looking out over McPhee from the top of the trail behind the Anasazi Heritage Center, the visitors reportedly asked why no one was out on the lake in the bright fall weather.

To look into the situation, the committee received approximately $29,000 in funding from the state Department of Local Affairs and San Juan Public Lands Center, according to Marsha Porter-Norton, group coordinator. About a third of that paid for the consultant’s report.

The group’s members were never formally chosen. Rather, they were people willing and able to attend the monthly meetings on weekday afternoons. Among those who came frequently were representatives of Colorado State Parks, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation. Dolores Mayor Marianne Mate, Montezuma County Commissioner Dewayne Findley, and several interested citizens were among the other participants.

“It was an open group,” said Porter-Norton. “There were 10 to 15 regular attendees.”

In September, after months of study, the group took a weighted survey regarding the future of McPhee. Among the most popular sentiments were a suggestion that the Forest Service and Colorado State Parks jointly manage recreation around McPhee, and that user fees should be considered.

Recreation expertise

McPhee Reservoir was completed in 1985, its primary purpose being to provide irrigation and municipal water for the area.. The dam and the water are responsibilities of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which governs flows and releases into the Dolores River. The Forest Service manages the lake under a memo of understanding with the Bureau of Reclamation.

But the committee and the Abonmarche report concur that State Parks should essentially take over management of lake recreation. Among the recommendations presented to Mike Znerold, district ranger for the Mancos-Dolores District, was that the Forest Service “move quickly to explore and attempt to solidify a strong relationship with Colorado State Parks (CSP) to jointly manage a marina and recreation in and around McPhee. . .”

How the partnership would work is uncertain, but CSP’s involvement would mean the area would be more intensely managed and would charge entrance and other fees. The committee believes CSP would be a better choice to manage the lake because it has expertise in water-based recreation.

“State Parks is in the business of managing recreation and water recreation,” said Dolores’ Mate. “And they have a well-developed maintenance commitment. Every year they have a pretty significant amount of their budget focused on re-developing or improving existing facilities.”

Znerold agreed. “They have more experience with more developed recreation,” he said. “There might be one other marina in the Forest Service – it’s not a typical thing that we do.” And the Forest Service has little money for maintenance at the site, he continued.

“We’re not in a position where we can plow revenue back into the maintenance, so the quality deteriorates,” he said. “There’s always money to build things but never to maintain them.”

Mate said CSP also excels at promotion. “They have the advantage of a network that already markets nationwide,” she said. “Their marketing tools, training, and reservation system are all very well developed.”

CSP, as a state agency, also has a much better chance of landing Greater Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) grants for parks and recreation than the federal Forest Service.

Supporters say making McPhee a state park would dovetail nicely with existing parks in the area: Mancos State Park at Jackson Gulch Reservoir, and the new Lone Mesa State Park north of Dolores, purchased in 2000 but not to be opened until 2008 or so because of budget shortfalls.

Becoming self-sufficient

State Parks, by all accounts, is very interested in assuming management of McPhee, a potential new source of revenue for the agency. Rather than contract with a private operator to run the marina, it could do so itself.

CSP already has taken over operation of the marina at Navajo State Park, a 15,000-acre lake straddling the New Mexico border. After the private operator failed in 2002, CSP put in a mooring-buoy field and is adding a gas dock, store and 24 slips, according to John Weiss, park manager for Navajo, Mancos and Lone Mesa.

In recent years, with Colorado’s severe budget cuts, CSP has been pushed toward becoming self-supporting. “The legislature and the governor have inspired us to move in that direction,” said Scot Elder, senior ranger for Mancos and Lone Mesa state parks.

Historically, the agency received 30 percent of its revenue from the state general fund, the remainder from user fees. Lately, however, CSP has been getting about 10.1 percent of its budget from the state, according to an Oct. 1 report by the divisions of Natural Resources and Parks and Outdoor Recreation.

The report was issued in response to a footnote in the FY 2004-05 Long Bill (the state’s budget) that urged the divisions to look into “enterprise” status for CSP. Enterprise status is for “government-owned business. . . receiving under 10 percent of annual revenues from all Colorado state and local governments combined.”

If CSP received a little less money from the state, the report concluded, it could become an enterprise, which would exempt it from TABOR spending and revenue limitations. Thus, it could raise and keep its own money.

“Enterprise status would allow DPOR (Parks and Outdoor Recreation) to grow its revenues without adversely affecting the State budget,” the report states. “Much of this revenue growth will occur from population growth and the opening of new state parks.”

However, the public is sensitive to fee hikes, so some state funding for CSP would have to continue, the report states.

“Without continued General Fund support, DPOR will have to raise fees significantly and/or close state park facilities,” the report says. “Unfortunately, the fee increase necessary to offset a loss in General Fund would likely price a significant number of Colorado citizens out of state parks. . . . The State of Washington is experiencing a 50 percent drop in visitation in some parks. . . due to recent fee increases.”

‘Still feeling the heat’

Charging entrance fees at McPhee could be controversial. The public is increasingly opposed to access fees on federal lands such as national forests. Even though the lake would be under state management, locals might resent paying to enter an area they used to visit for free.

When Jackson Reservoir near Mancos became a state park in the mid-1980s, there was considerable resentment, according to Weiss. “We’re still feeling the heat of that,” he told the McPhee committee in October. But he said the problem was that CSP implemented fees without adding amenities or seeking public involvement.

All state parks now charge $3 to $7 for entrance, although walk-ins and cyclists have lower or no fees. An annual pass for all Colorado state parks is $55. “If it becomes a state park there will be a fee,” Weiss told the committee.

Group members urged State Parks officials to consider a mix of free and paid access at McPhee. They talked about letting non-motorized craft such as kayaks and canoes onto the water for free, or leaving some points open for free entrance, such as the House Creek area on Granath Mesa.

But CSP is reluctant to try such an approach. “CSP is not in the business of running just a corner of the management area,” Elder said at one meeting. “As far as using House Creek for free access, for instance, I don’t see that working very well.”

Free access points invite trouble, according to Porter-Norton. “Wherever you have them, you have facilities that get vandalized,” she said. “It’s a Catch-22. People want free areas, but those people who vandalize really do ruin it for everybody else. If we’re getting toilets blown up and sites vandalized, who’s going to pay for that?”

But controlling entrance onto the sprawling reservoir, the second-largest body of water in Colorado, could be problematic. The lake’s surface area ranges from 2,200 acres during drought conditions up to 4,500 acres, according to the Abonmarche report, and it has up to 50 miles of shoreline.

Currently there are numerous access points. Beyond the existing marina site, two major ones are House Creek and Sage Hen, off CR X.

Mate agrees that access issues will have to be worked out. “State Parks will want to manage more than we want them to manage,” she said. “They’re going to want to close off all accesses other than the ones they can control, but geographically, I don’t think they can. If I can take my canoe and put it on the river, they can’t manage that. We’re going to have to keep advocating (for alternative access).”

She is confident, though, that most people will pay for a better recreational experience. “People say, ‘If there’s amenities, I’m happy to pay an entrance fee’.”

Elder said there’s room for flexibility. “We don’t want to preclude any creative ideas to keep some free access,” he said. “That is an issue that will have to be hashed out.”

‘An idea of hell’

Fees or no, the question remains of whether a marina can succeed at McPhee. The lake is narrow, water levels vary, and the season is short.

Three private marina operators have failed at the current location, a fact acknowledged in the Abonmarche report. The third operator left in the mid ’90s and the entire marina burned in a March 2002 fire that was investigated as arson, though no charges ever were filed. Not far away, a marina at Ridgway State Park went bankrupt in 1994.

“Our marina economic analyses show that these small reservoir marinas cannot be financed and operated for reasonable return on investment by the private sector,” the report states.

The consultants said early operators over-built, perhaps basing their optimism on a 1982 recreation plan that predicted 2,600 people a day using McPhee in the summer, an estimate that proved wildly over-inflated.

The problems facing concessionaires were delineated eloquently in a 1988 letter by the Earthscape Group, which had been invited to bid to provide a marina at McPhee. Earthscape wrote the Forest Service that “figures for visitations. . . are too high. We have no idea where these projections came from. . .” The group saw numerous problems including a profitable season of just 10 weeks, lack of protection from low lake levels or poisoned fish, a steep and narrow boat ramp, and the site’s distance from Dolores (9 miles).

Earthscape was particularly critical of the campsites, which are more than a mile from the shoreline. “An idea of hell might be to be placed in a tin box trailer, on a south-facing slope, in a PJ forest, on a hot day in late June while the gnats eat you alive,” the letter said.

Prophetically, the group concluded, “We believe that any concessioner who attempts to develop a marina. . . would lose everything.”

But the Abonmarche report contends that a concessionaire could make $350,000 a year at the existing McPhee site IF the new marina were built with public funds.

The consultants recommended building a small marina at the current site that could accommodate up to four houseboats, 24 wet berths, 20 mooring buoys, 20 dry stored boats, and paddlecraft, along with a concession and service building on-shore.

The report said other locales would be better for a marina, including a site closer to Dolores on the east shore or the popular House Creek area But a new location would mean undergoing lengthy environmental analyses and building new roads and infrastructure. A marina at House Creek would cost $10 million to $15 million, it is estimated.

Mate is already looking into funding sources for a new marina at the old site. She has sought advice from Christine Arbogast of Kogovsek & Associates, the same PR firm that successfully promoted the Animas-La Plata Project near Durango.

Mate is hopeful that federal funds could be allocated by 2006. Then, after the marina was built, State Parks would be able to assume operations. Unlike a private concessionaire, CSP would be in it for the long haul, she said.

How many tourists?

The committee and consultant view a marina as the jumping-off point for a grand recreation “master plan” in the Dolores-McPhee-Lone Mesa area. They envision mountain-biking, hiking, and ATV trails, possibly with cabins or yurts. Such a plan would require $10 million in new infrastructure, of which the $1.3 marina would be a part, the Abonmarche report said.

“The return on this investment to the economy of Montezuma County could well exceed 100% per year,” it said. “Critical mass will be exceeded which will foster additional recreational funding and development, which will bring a whole new set of problems/opportunities. . ..”

Mate said recreation would help the town of Dolores, which has seen slipping sales-tax revenues for the past few years.

But, with the West growing more crowded, not everyone wants to see a big increase in recreational visitors. Some skeptics worry that more trails and traffic would harm the numerous archaeological sites throughout the McPhee area and disturb wildlife.

Lynn Dyer, tourism director for Mesa Verde Country, conducted a newspaper and on-line survey of McPhee users in fall 2003 that received 484 responses, many of them supporting a new marina.

But some respondents vociferously disagreed with the idea of aggressively promoting and developing McPhee.

“We don’t use other lakes in the area because they have too many people and the water quality is poor from fecal bacteria,” wrote one respondent (all of whom were anonymous). “I do not want to see an increase in lodging, or ATV or houseboat use. . . . This should not be another Lake Powell. Some development in terms of access is okay and to be expected. To take away from the ‘wilderness’ open aspect of it would be a detriment. . . . Giving up some of the tranquility of our area for the almighty dollar is crazy. People, including my husband and I, moved here because it wasn’t Durango or Flagstaff and there weren’t thousands of people overusing the area.”

“We already have too many tourists and people moving into the area,” wrote another. “You can’t get down Main Street in Cortez. . . . If tourists knew how much planning is done to fleece them of their money they might stay away. Growth is not needed for prosperity, but only a short-term false fix and a long-term disaster. . . . Support small family farm agriculture and leave the tourists alone and home.”

Another advocated “no development at the lake,” saying “the proposal to build shopping facilities and a boardwalk are repellent to me.”

And another opined, “Who comes up with these outrageous no-brainer committees with no common sense, who want to use taxpayer money to further their own agenda? Don’t we have enough pollution of our waters, hiking trails & etc. already.”

But some supported development. “The recreational use of McPhee and Narraguinnep offer tremendous economic opportunity to the region. . . .,” one wrote. “Agricultural and recreational use of this very developable regional asset are very compatible. . .”

Dyer shares that view. “I think this is a very important part of what we need to have for the whole tourism mix in Montezuma County,” she said.

Mate agrees. “I have had people say, ‘We don’t need more development here, we don’t want more people here.’ Maybe you don’t, but other people do. If we could double existing visitation, that would be great.”

Committee members have said they appreciate the fact that McPhee is quiet and uncrowded, but also that it is a “wasted resource.”

Znerold said a recreation master plan would mean major changes. “If we’re moving in the direction of McPhee Marina being a 25 percent part of the total recreation package, we’re talking about more campground use, more use of trails, more traffic,” he said.

“ Increased use certainly comes at a cost to the resources. Recreation is perhaps not as benign as we always claimed it was.”

However, Znerold is excited about the energy and cooperation that have gone into the new proposals. He added, “I kind of like the sound of McPhee State Park.”

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