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Paonia grads patrolling Paonia State Park

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Photo by Randy Sunderland Colorado Parks and Wildlife Ranger Michael Hansen Lum, left, and Aquatic Nuisance Inspector Ben Linnell make up this summer's staff at Paonia State Park. The Paonia High School graduates grew up fishing and playing on the reserv

Colorado Parks and Wildlife must believe in hiring locally. For the past few years, staff members at Paonia State Park have been graduates of Paonia High School.

Ben Linnell and Michael Hansen Lum make up this summer's park staff. Linnell is the Aquatic Nuisance Inspector. He graduated in 2014 and is earning a degree in fisheries and wildlife biology and management at Central Wyoming College in Riverton.

Linnell remembers growing up fishing with dad Roger Linnell, a professional guide, and his older brothers, and competing in bass fishing tournaments. His family got its first fishing boat the week he was born, and he took his first fishing outing at 9 months.

He is responsible for ensuring that each watercraft is free of zebra and Quagga mussel before it launches. He also works to educate boaters on how to spot them. The non-indigenous species spread from Europe to the Great Lakes between the 1970s and 1990s. While the National Park Service, which turns 100 in August, is concerned about a long list of invasive species, these two are its primary concern in Colorado, said Linnell. They have worked their way into Lake Powell and other major bodies of water by attaching themselves to watercraft. The tiny mussels can upset entire ecosystems and clog waterways.

Some days only a boat or two will launch, but on a busy day, 20 or more will hit the water. Each requires an inspection, and sometimes a decontamination, especially in areas like inboard motors where they can easily go undetected.

The reservoir is stocked with rainbow trout, and brook trout come in from Muddy Creek, but very few people fish the reservoir, said Linnell. "People mainly come to water ski."

Last Saturday, between the early morning and the early-afternoon crowds, Linnell and Hansen Lum were paging through the "Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes" trying to identify a roughly 1.5-inch minnow species Linnell found floating on the water.

"We're biologists," said Hansen Lum. "We love that stuff."

Paonia State Park includes 13 primitive campsites at the Hawsapple and Spruce campgrounds and the Anthracite Day-Use Area located below Paonia Dam. It's one of the 42 state parks, and one of three that is within a 45-minute drive from town.

"It's a great resource for little Paonia," said Hansen Lum, who graduated in 2008. Growing up he remembers rope swings and fishing for pike at the reservoir, although the pike have been gone for several years. He earned a degree in biology and ecology from Western State Colorado University in 2015. He'd planned for a career in the sciences, but after deciding it really wasn't his thing, he shifted to law enforcement. "I want to be out there protecting resources," said Hansen Lum. When he saw an opening for a ranger at Paonia, he applied.

The Paonia Dam was constructed between 1959 and 1962 and is part of the Bureau of Reclamation's Paonia Project, which includes the Paonia Reservoir and Fire Mountain Canal. The project provides supplemental irrigation water to North Fork area farmers and fruit growers. Upon completion of the dam, its operation was handed over to the North Fork Water Conservancy District. Since 1965 the Paonia State Park recreation area has been administered by Colorado Parks & Wildlife.

Linnell and Hansen Lum aren't the first PHS grads to spend the summer at the park. Hansen Lum replaced four-year ranger Ben Benedict, a 2007 PHS graduate, and Linnell replaced 2012 graduate Daniel Ford.

As a kid, said Hansen Lum, he didn't understand the link between the reservoir and canal. Working there as an adult gives him a broader understanding of the facility and the role it plays in the North Fork Valley. It's a subject he would like to see taught at local schools.

Paonia State Park is unique in that it has the smallest operating budget of all the state parks -- $10,000 annually -- and has only two employees. About 99 percent of the contacts they make with the public are positive, but rules do get broken. They like to give people the benefit of a doubt, but on rare occasions they issue citations or tell visitors to leave the park.

The park is also surrounded by Gunnison National Forest lands, and wildlife can cause problems. A chipmunk recently got into their office and stole Linnell's cherries from his lunch, and they've chased a yearling bear out of the campground a few times. So far the bear hasn't been a nuisance, although they're in communication with wildlife officers about it.

Boating season is short at Paonia State Park -- the boat ramp, located at the high end of the park, closes within 24 days of the reservoir reaching capacity, which this year was on July 13. As runoff slows and demands for water increase, the water level drops rapidly.

Linnell said he'll head back to school in August and may return next summer. Because campgrounds are open through September, Hansen Lum will remain at the park until it closes, but he won't be back. This fall he'll attend the National Park Ranger Academy at Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely and begin a career with the National Park Service or another federal agency.

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North Fork
Paonia, Paonia State Park
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