Big water, big land conserved in private, federal cooperative project

A project by the Western Rivers Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management has opened public access to lands in northwest Colorado, including 2.5 miles of the Yampa River, the rapids-filled Cross Mountain Canyon and the Cross Mountain Wilderness Study Area.

A challenging section of the Yampa River and thousands of acres of public land in northwest Colorado are now more accessible, thanks to a joint effort between Western Rivers Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management.

Western Rivers Conservation, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting outstanding river ecosystems in the western United States, purchased the 920-acre Cross Mountain Ranch in 2012 and this month transferred ownership to the BLM.

The ranch includes the mouth of Cross Mountain Canyon, on the east edge of the Cross Mountain Wilderness Study Area, along with 2.5 miles of the Yampa River.

The property is 15 miles west of Maybell and includes pinyon-juniper woodlands, sagebrush communities, riparian areas, wetlands and former pasture land.

“Protecting access to our finest river lands and the wild areas that surround them is a key part of Western Rivers Conservancy’s mission,” WRC President Sue Doroff said. “Our conservation work at Cross Mountain Canyon Ranch ensures this incredible area will be open to hunters, anglers, boaters, hikers and anyone else who wants to explore this unique and rugged landscape.”

The Yampa River cuts a 1,000-foot gorge through the limestone foundation of Cross Mountain, forming big rapids, steep drops and skill-testing hydraulics offering some of the most-challenging high-water kayaking in the state.

“The opening rapid is a thing called Mammoth Falls, and it can be very exciting and very dangerous in a kayak,” said Pete Atkinson of Whitewater West in Grand Junction. “It’s a solid Class V run and has some big hydraulics that can hammer a kayak.”

Atkinson said a video crew from the American Sportsman TV show 25 years ago attempted to film four kayakers going through the canyon when it was running at 12,000 cubic feet per second. Only two of the kayakers opted for the challenge, and neither was successful.

The Cross Mountain WSA is home to elk, mule deer, mountain lion, bighorn sheep and other wildlife.

The project also creates a sanctuary for all four species of Colorado River Basin endangered fish: Colorado pike minnow, humpback chub, bonytail chub and razorback sucker.

“The wildlife values are exceptional, and the recreation opportunities — especially for hunters, anglers and boaters — are excellent,” said Dieter Erdmann, Interior West program director in WRC’s Colorado office. “When it comes to access, the project creates an invaluable resource for the public.”

Among the groups supporting the acquisition were the Yampa River System Legacy Project and Friends of the Yampa River.

According to WRC, the BLM has sought to acquire the ranch for years.

“The BLM is committed to providing expansive recreational opportunities and to managing native habitat,” said Wendy Reynolds, a BLM field manager. “Our partnership with Western Rivers Conservancy has allowed us to acquire land that will greatly improve access to a unique and prized recreation area.”

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