Climbers work their way up the frozen walls in the Ouray Ice Park on Dec. 29, 2018. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Ouray Ice Park to remain volunteer-managed under new plan after a thorny proposal to shift management to the city. Fees for groups could become a model for pay-to-play in popular recreation areas.
OURAY — The glassy tentacles of blue ice are ready. The cantilevered finish line — with some American Ninja-type obstacles to challenge the world’s top ice climbers — teeters over the edge of the frigid Uncompahgre Gorge.
Not only is Ouray and its ice park ready for this weekend’s 24th running of its celebrated ice festival, but a plan is underway to keep the free-to-access, volunteer-managed park viable for the next quarter century.
A year ago, the future of the internationally-renowned Ouray Ice Park was murkier than the mineral-tainted Uncompahgre River gurgling through the icy chasm. There was political drama. Thorny conflicts. A battle over the future of the park — specifically how much control the city should have over the 200-routes that had been managed by volunteers for more than 25 years — threatened a delicate operation anchored on free access and lots of water.
After mediation and negotiations, a freshly minted five-year plan has set the park on a new path that could emerge as a national model for governing recreation around heavily trafficked treasures like the Ouray Ice Park.
“People in Ouray, and really across the West, have been getting a whole lot of something for nothing for a whole lot of years. What’s happened in Ouray, there could be a larger lesson here on the pay-to-play question for the town, state and country,” said Luis Benitez, Colorado’s outdoor recreation chief who, in a former life, guided ice climbing in Ouray and, as a trustee in Eagle, grappled with a rural community’s transitional embrace of recreation.
Year-round tourism wanted
It wasn’t that long ago that Ouray went dark when winter arrived. The so-called “Switzerland of America” bustled with summer visitors but hibernated when the snow started falling. In the early 1990s, adventurous ice climbers secured the blessing of Eric Jacobson, who owns the hydropower pipeline that runs the length of the gorge, and started farming ice. With garden hoses and PVC pipe, they rigged an intricate system that trickles water into the canyon to create a fleeting monument of vertical ice. The frozen pillars — formed with as much as 200,000 gallons of city water every night — draw more than 15,000 cramponed climbers to Ouray each winter. The park’s annual three-day festival every January balloons Ouray’s population with thousands of visitors.
The park thrived for more than two decades. Then came the lean years. Low-snow winters pinched water supplies. Warm temperatures and Ouray’s antiquated water system left the park pining for ice. (Ice farmers get their water only after all municipal needs have been met.) In 2015-16, the park’s ice farmers couldn’t use municipal water until a few days before the Ouray Ice Festival. The next season also was warm and the park again opened late. With shorter seasons offering fewer routes for climbing, Ouray’s winter economy started sputtering.
The volunteer board governing the continent’s premier ice park wondered if maybe the city, which owns the water and most of the park’s land, should be managing the recurring attraction. The non-profit Ouray Ice Park Inc. — or OIPI — saw that the park had become a critical economic engine and management demands had perhaps exceeded the capacity of a volunteer board of ice climbers. The board and city in 2017 started negotiating a possible change. Turns out it’s easier to grow 200-foot fangs of ice along a mile of canyon than it was to transition the park to public from private.
Keeping liability with the climbers
One particularly troublesome issue was liability. As the city mulled a plan that would treat the ice park like the city-owned hot springs pool — collecting entrance fees to offset operating costs — Jacobson, the owner of the country’s oldest operating hydropower plant, objected.
Jacobson has leased the 60-plus acres he owns atop the park to the city for a dollar a year since he purchased the power plant in 1992. Under Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rules, he can allow recreation on either side of his 6,000-foot penstock atop the canyon only if access is free. Colorado’s Recreational Use Statute says landowners who do not charge for recreation on their land cannot be sued if someone gets hurt while playing. The law is a cornerstone of recreational access to private land.
Jacobson feared he might be liable for any injuries sustained in the park if the city started charging for access. Neither the city nor the ice park board wanted to threaten the relationship with Jacobson, who also provides free electricity to the park’s office and has a friendly relationship with the climbers who clamber across his pipeline all winter.
“People do get hurt every year but I’ve never been threatened. I’m not going to back down on that. If the city wants to run it like their swimming pool, that’s fine, but how am I going to be covered?” Jacobson said earlier this month, hollering above the din of water-powered turbines that have been providing electricity to Ouray since the 1890s. “The Recreational Use Statute is specific about charging money for entrance. They have a really good board running the park. My land here, about 60 acres, it’s become a town open space and I lease it for a buck a year and everyone is pretty happy. As far as I’m concerned, everything is fine and well.”