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WSCC celebrates 40 years of stewardship

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Photo by Tamie Meck Dr. John Hausdoerffer, professor of environmental sustainability and philosophy at Western State Colorado University, was the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the Western Slope Conservation Center last February in Hotchkiss. Th

The Western Slope Conservation Center will present the annual Mountain Film Festival this Friday at the Paradise Theatre in Paonia. The festival is part of the worldwide tour of the annual MountainFilm Festival held each May in Telluride.

Festival goers will enjoy environmental and adventure films that illustrate planet Earth's beauty while highlighting increasing threats to fragile ecosystems. Films will both inform festival-goers about the state of the world, and inspire them to take action.

The festival is sponsored by the Western Slope Conservation Center, the Paradise Theatre, and The Cirque Cyclery. For more than 40 years WSCC has been a voice for public lands, watersheds, and environmental education on Colorado's western slope.

The mission of the Paonia-based nonprofit is to "protect and enhance the lands, air, water, and wildlife of the Lower Gunnison Watershed," and to build an active and aware community.

WSCC began in 1977 as the North Fork River Improvement Association (NFRIA). Its three main areas of focus include public lands, watershed stewardship, and education and engagement.

WSCC staff provides resources to municipalities and groups that allow them to "weigh in in a substantive and meaningful way," said executive director Alex Johnson. "Just getting a seat at the table can be more difficult than you think it can be."

WSCC boasts more than 450 members and works with more than 90 groups and organizations. In a recent survey by Colorado University, WSCC score 100 percent on a scale of 0-100 on "relative connectivity."

WSCC's annual meeting doubled as a celebration, with the theme, "The Big Picture." Using hundreds of tiny photographs from WSCC/WSERC-related events, places, and people, Paonia photographer Celia Roberts created a mosaic of the North Fork area. (See the image and zoom in on the tiny individual photos at westernslopeconserva

tion.org.) The image illustrates "what small efforts do to create the big picture," said board chair Alison Elliot.

WSCC also honored its annual "Conservation Heroes." Neal Schwieterman, "a visionary who keeps people engaged," is a co-founder of The Nature Connection, which creates educational outdoor opportunities for local students. A youth kayak instructor, he worked to remove an impassable dam from the Gunnison River below the Highway 65 Bridge, improving safety and opening access to a previously inaccessible stretch of river.

Kevin and Jackie Parks were honored as "signature champions" for their contributions to the Paonia River Park. Local scientist Barbara Galloway was honored for her work with River Watch, an ongoing volunteer-based program to monitor water quality in the North Fork area.

WSCC is collecting stories from the last 40 years and documenting them on its website, westernslopeconservation.org. Among its successes, WSERC/WSCC partnered with Town of Paonia, the community, and "philanthropic foundations, businesses, and government agencies" to transform an in-stream gravel mine into Paonia River Park.

Located south of the Grand Avenue Bridge, the 24-acre public park is a hub of hands-on environmental education in the community. It offers a mile-long loop of red gravel walking trail, informational and educational signage, and rare public access to the North Fork of the Gunnison River. It's also ADA accessible and includes a unique, metal artwork, handicap access ramp.

Creation of the park not only provides a unique place in the North Fork Valley, but also infused more than $1 million in the community through local purchasing and hiring, said Johnson.

Among WSCC's educational opportunities is the annual Float Fest, which for the past 17 years has offered a guided float trip down the North Fork of the Gunnison River from Paonia to Hotchkiss. The event has grown to include a River Festival celebrating the value of the river and access to public lands with food, games, live music and activities.

WSCC also hosts Conservation Days. Each year about 400 fourth grade students from five Delta County public schools participate in an educational field trip to explore the river and learn about conservation.

Other projects are the works, including construction of a public river take-out ramp at the Delta County Fairgrounds in Hotchkiss. WSCC is partnering with the town on a grant application for the "Paonia River Park Bridge and Connector Trail Project." The project is estimated at about $222,000. Once complete, the project will create long-term trail connectivity with the River Park and improve public access to the river corridor trail system.

A major component of the project involves replacement of an existing metal pedestrian bridge over Minnesota Creek connecting the lower park to the upper trail loop, with an ADA-compliant and more attractive metal bridge.

In a time when nonprofits are struggling, WSCC has a balanced budget and is increasing its staff. In looking at the big picture, "I think we're in good shape for the next 40 years," said Elliot.

Friday's film festival begins at 7 p.m. Tickets purchased in advance are $15 for WSCC members, $20 for non-members, or $20 for all at the door. The event quickly sold out last year.

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