The march north
City acquires 50 acres near Oxbow, opening a ton of recreational opportunities

The march north

The City of Durango recently acquired about 50 acres just north of Oxbow Park &?Preserve. Now, the city is planning for future use, balancing wildlife habitat and recreation. / Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Jonathan Romeo - 03/02/2023

In a major win, the City of Durango obtained 50 acres of open space on the north end of town, effectively doubling the size of Oxbow Park and Preserve. But reported plans to extend the Animas River Trail may be getting a little too far ahead, city officials say.

Oxbow Park and Preserve, purchased by the City of Durango in 2012, is a 44-acre area along 1.7 miles of the Animas River in north Durango. Most of the land, about 38 acres on the northern end, is dedicated as a natural preserve for wildlife habitat (where dogs and bikes are not allowed).

Immediately to the north of the park and preserve, however, are two parcels totaling about 50 acres, largely undeveloped and fenced off from the public land in Oxbow. For more than two decades, the City of Durango has attempted to acquire these properties.

Those efforts came to fruition this year after the California-based investment company that owns the land, Romad Investments – owned by William and Madelyn Waters – donated the two parcels to the city. Efforts to reach the Waters for comment on this story were unsuccessful.

Though the newly acquired lands open up all kinds of possibilities – extending the Animas River Trail, expanding the natural preserve for wildlife and other outdoor recreation opportunities – much still has to be figured out, Amy Schwarzbach, the city’s natural lands manager, said.

“We’re excited, because this preserves the Animas River greenway, which is one of our highest priorities,” Schwarzbach said. “But much is to be determined.”

One of the biggest potential projects – extending the Animas River Trail north – has garnered much of the attention, but there are some big caveats and issues to resolve before construction companies start making their way north.

Oxbow Park and Preserve is in a conservation easement, and one condition in that designation is that the City of Durango can build out the Animas River Trail north through the area, Schwarzbach said.

However, as it stands, extending the trail through the newly acquired land would only minimally expand the trail, likely at a very expensive cost. Also, city officials must determine what the impact on wildlife would be from a new trail running through the preserve.

What’s likely to happen, Schwarzbach said, is that the city will soon begin an internal planning process that will include tons of opportunity for public involvement.

“Now that we own it,” Schwarzbach said, “what do we want to do with it?”

Early planning documents from the City of Durango show there was a grand vision to extend the Animas River Trail north, as far as Hesperus, to allow for connectivity and even possibly reduce traffic.

Over the years, of course, those lands were divided up into private hands, making the possibility of piecemealing enough property that would allow the trail to run that far north – about 7 miles from city limits – seem impossible.

But that doesn’t mean the City of Durango doesn’t take an opportunity when one presents itself.

“Internally, we’re looking at (this newly acquired land) as a puzzle-piece connector,” Schwarzbach said. “But if the opportunity arises (to acquire more land), the desire is not gone. But with all the land ownership changes, it does make regional trails more difficult.”

Schwarzbach, however, pointed to the Smart 160 trail system, which seeks to connect the Animas River Trail to Three Springs, east of town. That project, too, has required complicated coordination with land owners but ultimately is on track for completion.

“We’re still working on (the Smart 160 trail), and there are highs and lows in the process,” she said. “But it’s still a community vision we’re working toward. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s more rewarding to see it through.”

The other issue to consider is – if and when the trail runs north – how that would impact the natural preserve for wildlife on the northern end of Oxbow.

Again, Schwarzbach said a robust, comprehensive planning evaluation phase still needs to happen before anything definitive is determined.

However, she said if a trail were to extend north, it would likely hug the existing Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad easement, thereby concentrating potential disturbances to wildlife and keeping the trail away for the preserve.

As for the future of the newly acquired land – whether it will be an extension of the adjacent preserve or some other use – remains up in the air for the time being.

“We knew it was a priority to preserve this property, but the management side has not been hashed out,” she said.

In the meantime, city officials say the new 50 acres are a huge win and could be an important part of grander plans in the future.

“This is an amazing opportunity and could be a strategic middle piece to continue the Animas River Trail north should further opportunities fall into place,” Schwarzbach said. “I always stay hopeful that the next opportunity is waiting just around the corner, and that door will open when the time is right.”