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The 603,500 acre-foot John Martin Reservoir was built in 1948 for irrigation storage and flooding control. The reservoir - known as the Sapphire of the Plains - the largest in southeast Colorado. (Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

For 55 years, Colorado Parks and Wildlife managed Army Corps of Engineers crews around John Martin Reservoir as a state wildlife area with a focus on protecting habitat for fish, fowl, deer and rabbits.  

On Monday, Aug. 28, CPW announced management of the 19,471-acre John Martin Reservoir State Wildlife Area in southeastern Colorado surrounding John Martin Reservoir would revert to the Army Corps, effective Friday, Sept. 1. CPW, in a terse news release, said it was “unable to reach a new agreement” on the management of the wildlife area and the 55-year-old management plan for almost 20,000 acres would change in five days. 

CPW representatives said they won’t share anything beyond the news release. Corps people in Albuquerque said “this is pretty sudden” as they discussed hastily arranged changes in management for the wildlife area. 

“This was just brought to me this morning,” Michael Graff, spokesman for the Corps’ Albuquerque District, said Tuesday. The Corps’ New Mexico district has managed John Martin Reservoir — known as the Sapphire on the Plains — since the 603,500 acre-foot impoundment was constructed in 1948. 

CPW and the Army Corps first negotiated a license agreement to manage the land around the reservoir as a wildlife area in 1968. The two agencies forged a second deal in 1993. 

That second license deal expired in 2018 and “we were working toward finding another license agreement and it just didn’t work out,” Graff said Wednesday after digging into the sudden shift. 

Graff said the sticking points involved the Army Corps asking CPW “for additional cleanup” and replacing signs. He said “there were studies that should have been getting done that were not getting done.”

“It came down to them saying ‘Can we reach an agreement? No. Well, we will hand this back over,’” Graff said. 

No more dispersed camping, no more off-roading

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has about 350 state wildlife areas spanning more than 684,000 acres. The John Martin Reservoir SWA is one of the largest in Colorado. As of Friday it will no longer be called a “state wildlife area.” 

The state agency has many dozens of SWA leases with private owners, cities, counties, water utilities and the U.S. government. 

The Army Corps does manage wildlife areas around the country and is equipped to handle the new acres, Graff said.

Graff said there will be some changes in the sudden transition. The Corps will not allow off-road travel beyond the main roads surrounding the reservoir. 

And perhaps that biggest change is that the Army Corps will no longer allow dispersed camping at dozens of undeveloped campsites in the former state wildlife area. (CPW will continue to manage two campgrounds offering 213 sites at the John Martin  Reservoir State Park.)

“We don’t have funding to designate a new camping area at this time,” Graff said. 

Considering the crowds arriving for Labor Day Weekend camping, Graff said the Army Corps is delaying its no-camping rule to Sept. 4. 

Jake Williams, the Army Corps’ operations project manager at John Martin Reservoir, has been visiting with campers along the waterfront all week. 

“We are hearing a combination of things. Some people are really upset there will be no dispersed camping after they have been doing it for so long,” Williams said. “And there are a lot of people who are really positive and glad to hear they still will be allowed to hunt and fish.”

Hunting and fishing regulations will remain the same, with required CPW licenses. CPW adopted a rule in 2020 that requires all visitors to state wildlife areas to have a hunting or fishing license, even if they are not hunting or angling. That license requirement will no longer apply under federal management of the land around John Martin Reservoir. 

How will CPW manage wildlife in the former conservation area? Will the Army Corps continue to manage the area to protect wildlife habitat? 

Bill Vogrin, a public information officer for CPW,  declined to offer information about the negotiations or the five-day transition of management for the area. Vogrin also would not answer questions about sticking points in the lease negotiations with the Army Corps or whether the land would continue to be managed for wildlife habitat and wildlife-related recreation like it has been for the past 55 years. 

“Those are questions for the Army Corps,” Vogrin said. “The press release will have to speak for itself.”

The bureaucratic bumbling has left way more questions than answers.

Ron Moreland has been fielding “calls all day” at his Tackle Box angling shop in Hasty, a couple miles north of the John Martin State Park. 

“It’s just bizarre. That’s what it is. It’s like these guys are playing chess. I heard they will still allow camping and hunting, so that’s what I’m telling everyone,” said Moreland on Tuesday, before the Army Corps announced it would allow camping through the holiday weekend. “If they are not going to allow camping, they are going to have a busy weekend kicking everyone out this Labor Day weekend. They are already set up all along the lake.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...