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.”
Reining the “cowboy” board
The city tapped Great Outdoors Colorado and Trust for Public Land grants in 2007 and 2012 to acquire most of the acreage for the park. OIPI and city last year forged an operating plan that keeps the volunteers in control of the park, but changes operations with an eye toward protecting the future of the park.
There are new fees for commercial and non-commercial groups — like schools and educational groups. A new ambassador program has two expert climbers in the park five days a week, surveying visitors and making sure everyone follows the rules, like always wearing helmets and crampons, and moving between routes every few hours.
“We are not changing the board, but the way it operates. I would say in the past, this has been a bit of a cowboy operation and we are trying to move beyond that and really secure the future of the ice park and the operation by refining our management practices and protocols,” said Dan Chehayl, the park’s executive director. “I think the city has its hands in so many things that them operating the park is not really realistic. I’m just happy that we can move on.”
A new concession contract for tax-exempt groups requires them to apply for a permit and show insurance as well as first-aid certification for their guides. Next year, the park will try to direct commercial guiding operations and the educational groups toward mid-week visits. The new operating agreement follows the park’s original vision of maintaining a visitor balance of roughly 75 percent recreational, private climbers and 25 percent with guides or groups. Fees collected from those groups will help offset the cost of the ambassador program.
OIPI — which collects donations and offers memberships to help offset the cost of its ice farming and management programs — also is exploring ways to purchase its own water, which would allow it to wean from city supplies. When city water storage gets too low, the city curtails the amount of water the park can use to make its routes. If the park had its own water rights, ice farmers could use the 300 gallons a minute they need every night in December and January to form more than 200 different routes.
Can the park pay for itself?
The revamp of park management came after a specially-formed sustainability committee spent a year studying a host of funding scenarios for the park. The idea was to find a way where the park could have consistent funding beyond donations and hopefully ease Ouray’s economic dependence on a group of volunteers.
“We explored all these different avenues for funding and making the park pay for itself and we basically came to the realization that the model we have been operating with for the last 25 years was really the only feasible way to do it,” said Bill Leo, a longtime OIPI board member and owner of Ouray Mountain Sports, which he has owned since 1995, transforming it into one of Colorado’s premier climbing shops.
The volunteers remain at the helm, but better management of groups along with ambassadors on the ice collecting more information on visitors is a new direction. Next year the board will take over administration of commercial permits — which has been done by a local guiding outfit in recent years — and will collect fees from groups.
“The city has just too many irons in the fire to really concentrate on only a single type of recreational interest. That’s where I see nonprofits can be very successful at concentrating their efforts on funding and keeping volunteer interest high,” said Ouray City Manager Katie Sickles. “Park use has grown and interest has grown and we have some growing pains but we are working through those.”
Pay-to-play is a thorny issue in the West, where climbers and mountain bikers and paddlers freely frolic while fees collected from hunters and anglers support conservation, wildlife habitat and access. That free play could be changing and Colorado is at the forefront of the shift, with the Colorado Parks & Wildlife department’s five-year Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan corralling a wider array of recreational users — not just hunters and anglers — to help support outdoor recreation and conservation of resources like the Ouray Ice Park.
And Ouray could be forging the management model for the state, with its dedicated cabal of passionate climbers demonstrating independent governance without relying wholly on government.
“We are going to have to find out how to manage these recreational resources and create a sustainable future,” Benitez says. “Ouray is a great example of what we can do.”
This story was updated at noon on Jan. 24, 2019, to correct a photo cutline that incorrectly described the year that Ouray was founded.
Ouray Ice Festival
The Ouray Ice Festival runs Jan. 24 through 29. No registration is required to watch the competition. However, there are nightly events and clinics that do require a ticket. Get the details at ourayicepark.com