Town Story: Pagosa Springs

Pagosa Springs doesn’t end at the city limits. The people who live here feel an intimate connection to the river, the forests, the mountains and the ski slopes just up the road at Wolf Creek Pass.

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Wolf Creek, the San Juan River and San Juan National Forest are just as much a part of Pagosa Springs as the town itself. In recent years, the river has been transformed from a sluice lined with junk cars to a beautifully restored destination for families, rafters and fishermen, who have been known to pluck fish from between the legs of children playing in the water.

The forest is a treasure that Morgan Murri would like to see more people take advantage of. Murri founded GECKO, a clever acronym for Giving Every Child Knowledge of the Outdoors, which raises money for outdoor youth leadership programs. GECKO recently started a series of trail runs and mountain-bike races through the stunning landscape around Pagosa Springs. The next event, on Sept. 27, is the Mountain Chile Cha Cha, combining trail running with a music and green chile festival.

Fall is the start of deer, black bear and elk season. Hunters flock to the forests, and Norm Vance tags along on his motorcyle. Vance hosts a Pagosa Springs radio show in which he interviews hunters, giving them their 15 minutes of fame, and posts photos of their successes on his website. He also holds contests for the hunters, giving out awards for things like best hunting camp of the season. Hunters don’t bother much with showering and shaving while they’re living in the field, so Vance created a tongue-in-cheek award for the “Dirtiest Hunter in the San Juan.” The grand prize is a trip to a hot springs resort to clean up, though there’s a disclaimer that the winning hunter must wash off the first layer of grime before hitting the pool.


THE FOREST WASN’T always about recreation. For years, logging was the main industry in Pagosa Springs. That largely ended in the 1970s, but it’s making a comeback in a vastly different form. Instead of clear-cutting trees, there’s a new plan to selectively thin out the forests, with two important results. First, it will eliminate dense concentrations of dead trees that can result in uncontrollable wildfires. Last year, a complex of wildfires came close to wiping out the town of South Fork, just across Wolf Creek Pass from Pagosa Springs. Pagosans are eager to see the fire danger reduced in the forests around them, creating a sort of buffer zone. The U.S. Forest Service granted a stewardship contract to J.R. Ford of the Pagosa Land Co. to harvest trees in a 50-mile radius around Pagosa Springs.

The big trees will be sent to a new sawmill in town, while the smaller trees will be chipped and turned into a source of renewable biomass energy through a process called gasification, which will run a new power plant that could provide much of the town’s electricity. Another potential source of renewable energy has been under Pagosans’ feet all along, thousands of feet down in the geothermal aquifer. A public-private partnership is exploring the viability of using the super-heated water to run a geothermal power plant, which would be the first in Colorado.

The forests and hot springs have always had a magical energy that’s drawn people here, but Pagosans may soon find they possess energy of a different sort – the kind that will lead the town into a sustainable future.

(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)

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