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Federal Role

Today the Colorado River provides one of the most popular recreation attractions in the western United States. This has not always been the case. When the lower portions of the Colorado River were first eyed as a source of water for the Southwest, recreation was not in the view. The land adjacent to the river and in the surrounding deserts was both inhospitable and unforgiving. As a result the focus was on survival rather than leisure. The few people who did toil for existence had time for little else. Farming was a sunup-to-sundown occupation which offered scant opportunity for recreational pursuits. In subsequent years, there were an adventuresome few for whom the river was a source of challenge and recreation. Usually only the hardiest of individuals were benefactors of this part of the Colorado River. This has been accomplished by a joint effort: private enterprise working with local, state and federal agencies.

Five Department of the Interior agencies have been instrumental in developing recreation along the Colorado River from Lake Powell to the international boundary with Mexico. In addition to the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service, these include the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and numerous tribal governments working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In contrast, today the lower reaches of the river offer richly developed recreational resources which provide myriad opportunities to visitors. This has been accomplished by a joint effort: private enterprise working with local, state and federal agencies.

Collectively there are about 40 federal recreation sites in the lower reaches of the Colorado. Moving upstream on the river, within the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, there are 187 recreation sites at 28 Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs. The available opportunities range from fishing and watching wildlife to boating and whitewater rafting.

Firm development began to take place in 1935 when the Bureau of Reclamation completed Hoover Dam. This long-awaited event fostered recreational potential in at least three ways. First it tamed the Colorado River and offered a degree of downstream flood protection. Second, the storage system provided both an adequate and reliable source of water upon which communities could depend and grow. And lastly, Hoover and the subsequent dams formed reservoirs and provided relatively stable river flows for recreation.

The authorizing legislation for the Boulder Canyon Project and Hoover Dam clearly spelled out priorities for that project -- flood control, water storage and hydroelectric power generation. There were no priorities for recreation, fish and wildlife or environmental concerns. In the absence of mandates during the early years of Colorado River operations, little thought was given to areas outside the mandated priorities.
 
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This situation changed with the establishment of national recreation areas by the National Park Service. Lake Mead National Recreation Area was established in 1964, covering the land surrounding Lake Mead and Lake Mohave. Prior to that, the land around Lake Mead was known as the Boulder Dam National Recreation Area which had been operational since 1936.

This was the first large-scale project on the river, followed by the 1972 creation of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area after the 1966 completion of Glen Canyon Dam, which forms Lake Powell. The park service also manages Curecanti National Recreation Area in Colorado, created in 1965, which includes three reservoirs on the Gunnison River, a Colorado River tributary.

Upper Basin opportunities were additionally enhanced by the 1968 establishment of Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area on the Green River in Wyoming and Utah. Today Flaming Gorge is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Tied closely to the development of recreational facilities are the development of wildlife refuges and the use of the Colorado River for the benefit of wildlife values. Recreationists benefit from such management through enhanced opportunities to view wildlife and through hunting and fishing experiences.

In the Upper Colorado Region, Fish and Wildlife operates three national wildlife refuges, one each in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The facilities principally benefit migratory waterfowl. Also, Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife and the various states are involved in recovery programs for endangered native fishes in the Colorado system. For many people, the knowledge that the rivers and reservoirs are managed with such sensitivity, and that the programs are showing success, enhances their recreational experience.

Finally, management decisions also are made with an eye toward sport fisheries. Some of the best trout fishing in America takes place in the rivers and streams below the dams. In addition, a significant variety of fish can be caught in the reservoirs of the river system, ranging from world-record-sized lake trout in the colder reservoirs to bass and other warm water fish in the lower, warmer reservoirs.

As populations in the Southwest soar, concern is voiced not only about the urban impacts, but also impacts and pressures which these population centers will place on surrounding land and resources. The expanding populations make development of recreational resources on the Colorado River all the more important.