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Outdoors, art, education all at River Park

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Photo by Tamie Meck Metal artist Ira Houseweart works on the handicap access ramp at Paonia River Park. Apprentices Drew Burch and Adam Sheldon are also working on the project, one of several underway, in planning stages or recently completed at the park.

Visiting Paonia River Park it's difficult to imagine it was once an industrious in-stream gravel mine. From the arch entryway and river overlook to a recently improved section of walking path, the park is trail system, outdoor classroom, sanctuary and art gallery all rolled into one.

With an estimated 95 percent of the North Fork of the Gunnison's riverfront land privately owned, it also offers rare public access for fishing, raft and kayak launching, picnicking and swimming, although the water runs at about 52 degrees these days.

The roughly 24-acre park has, from its beginnings in the 1990s, provided a first-rate example of community collaboration and dedication. More than a dozen stakeholders were involved in its planning, many continue to be involved in its improvements and use today, and many more have joined along the way.

"This park is an amazing resource," says Ralph D'Alessandro, a member of the Paonia River Park Committee and a Delta Conservation District board member. A leader in efforts to rid the North Fork's riverfront of invasive vegetation, he points to a sage-green Russian olive that has to go.

Education is a major component of the park's master plan, said D'Alessandro. Each year Delta County students visit the outdoor classroom to learn about energy, wildlife, local history and more during Conservation Days. Last April more than 300 fourth-grade students and several organizations and governmental entities participated in the grant-funded event.

"The River Park really is a valuable community asset, especially since there is so little access to the North Fork," said WSCC river park coordinator Julia Bowman. "We are really proud of what we have been able to create for Paonia and Delta County residents and visitors alike."

In all, the WSCC has invested about $850,000, including $500,000 in grants, into restoration and development of the park, according to Bowman, an AmeriCorps VISTA member who arrived in April to spend a year at WSCC.

Bowman is the sixth VISTA member to work at WSCC. AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers are a big part of the park's history, including the creation of the master plan. "That basic plan is what we've been working from since then," said Bowman.

WSCC has applied for and received grants the last four years, said D'Alessandro. This past year grant-funded trail projects were completed, including reconstruction and widening of a 334-foot section of trail. Labor was done by a dozen volunteers with the Youth Conservation Corps.

While 334 feet of trail may not seem like much, it is significant to the park's overall purpose, said D'Alessandro. The park committee plans to build an additional 2,000 feet of trail which will connect to existing and planned trails, including a section just downstream that is part of the master plan for the Paonia High School Flight of the Eagle Project. Negotiations are also in the works for an easement to allow for widening of an existing trail within the park.

Most recently, WSCC was awarded grants from the Gates Family Foundation and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife's Fishing is Fun program for installation of a handicap access ramp. Construction is being overseen by Hotchkiss metal artist Ira Houseweart. Metal sculptures by Houseweart and Jim Hardin are also represented in the arch entryway and overlook platform.

When complete, the more than 100-foot-long ramp's railings will look like tree branches, with animals, insects and other sculptures placed throughout. Houseweart said most of the sculpture work is already done. "We're doing just the physical work now," he said of the huge framework that includes a large viewing platform.

The project represents hundreds of hours of work, said Houseweart. The project is expected to be completed in about a month.

The ramp exemplifies WSCC's mission, said D'Alessandro. "It's artistic and functional, and makes the park accessible to everyone."

Everything within the park, including the concrete pathway leading into the park, was created by locals and for sustainability and low maintenance, said D'Alessandro.

WSCC also received a $45,000 GOCO grant this summer for creation of interpretive signage. Educational signage about the park's creation and area's history, riparian habitats and geology is already in place.

The park committee is seeking funding to replace the bridge crossing Minnesota Creek with one that is handicap accessible, which could happen in 2017 or 2018. There are a lot of challenges to that, said D'Alessandro. In addition, structures remaining from the gravel mining operation are slated to be moved, which will open up the views of the West Elks to the east.

The entire park is being created by people working together. Said D'Alessandro, "This is what's come from nothing."

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