SAN Luis Valley Great Outdoors, or SLVGO for short, has its logo on just about every interpretation sign on every major trailhead in the Valley. Its impact has been seen in every corner and nook of the San Luis Valley’s great outdoors. Mountain bikers, hikers, dog walkers, and after-hours nature photographers may have been on a trail SLVGO has maintained or built, or been a part of a community event it has helped to incorporate.
I sought to gain a better understanding of what SLVGO is. In this months-long mission I have met with Executive Director Mick Daniel, Operations Director Patrick Ortiz, Community Connections Coordinator Dani Gronhovd, and GOAT (we’ll touch on this later) Logan Hjelmstad to find the faces behind that logo. SLVGO has had a strong presence in the Valley for a few years now, and I wanted to know who everyone was and why they did this kind of work. Like most residents of the Valley I, too, wondered who SLVGO is and why the work they do matters. Through this story I found the answers to a lot of questions, and I hope that as it reaches more inquisitive newcomers to the Valley, it will answer your questions, too.
What SLVGO does is more than just trail maintenance – it is community-oriented, involved with conservation projects and often being the voice and mediator for local projects that have been unsuccessful in gaining funding. SLVGO is a group that ensures a public project can happen, or get as far as the planning stages, at the very least. It is also a platform for larger education programs – gathering resources, experts, and locations to educate on issues such as responsible trail use, water, riparian function, ecosystem behavior, and recreation skills.
HOW TO WATCH THE AWARD PRESENTATION
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will honor this year’s winners Nov. 9-10 during a virtual RWJF Culture of Health Prize Celebration and Learning Event. During the event, representatives from the prize communities will talk through the different ways they are leveraging their strengths and bringing partners together to expand opportunity. The 10 new winners will also connect with their 44 fellow Prize Alumni communities.
2020-2021 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Award Ceremony 1:15 p.m.-2:30 p.m. eastern time. Prize winners will be presented their certificates and offer acceptance remarks.
Please note: Event will be broadcast live at http://rwjf.org/prize. Learn more about the Prize-winning work underway in Alamosa County through a collection of videos, written profiles, and photos at www.rwjf.org/Prize.
When in the midst of the San Luis Valley’s vast open spaces, one can simply wonder how all of it happens. Who builds the trails? Who names the trailheads or mountain bike branches? Who funds these kinds of things? And the most important: Why does it matter?
SLVGO is able to do this through a series of partner programs it has helped create or worked closely alongside for years. These partners are: SLV GenWild, Rio Grande Farm Park, Alpine Achievers Initiative, Rio Grande Watershed, Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project, Adams State Adventure Program, Boys & Girls Club, Del Norte Trails Organization, Eastern San Luis Valley Trails Coalition, Conejos Clean Water, and the Rattlers Mountain Bike Team.
Stewardship and revitalization of open spaces, creation and inception of outdoor education and outreach are simple on paper, but there is a never-ending process to ensure that our great outdoors stay that way. The ouroboros of outdoor stewardship has many, many heads.
MICK Daniel, like many young men, just wanted to be outdoors. He worked at the North Carolina Outward Bound School in the Instructor Development Course. He was the youngest person there. He dropped out of school and traveled, working different jobs. Then he decided to head back to school. Afterward, he found his way to Adams State University, and became involved with SLVGO during his tenure as director of Student Life.
Karla Shriver and Ken Salazar were having conversations about 8 million acres of public land, how new trails weren’t being developed, and how the land could be used for new trails. They involved Daniel in these conversations. Counties around the Valley were applying for GOCO funding, but in the end were getting denied, “There was no plan… no coordinated effort,” said Daniel. SLVGO was designed to ensure that these plans had coordinated efforts that would see the light of day so that counties could begin to develop the land.
As executive director, Daniel deals with day-to-day operations, enacting the master plan. He also ensures that SLVGO remains financially sound. Most of all, he is making community outreach happen. “I talk a lot,” he says, which means that he works to build relationships with different facets and faces around the Valley, and champions stories to tell them better, to a bigger audience. “I really enjoy it. I love the work I do.”
SLVGO is about connecting communities to resources, thus connecting more resources to the community.
Patrick Ortiz is a born-and-raised Valley local. In an interview from early July, he discussed his path to becoming a part of SLVGO. He had been working as a trail crew leader for the City of Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks. His season there was coming to an end, and when he came back home he found there was a position open with San Luis Valley Great Outdoors.
Throughout my interview with Ortiz, one phrase he kept sewing into his reasoning and his passion for this work was “manifesting destiny,” and the idea that through the outdoors we can create our own destinies and live the lives we want.
As operations director, Ortiz is responsible for what SLVO GO calls the GOATs. He ensures they get paid and fed, and plans the logistics of a trail build or maintenance of an established trail.
TRAILS AND PROGRAMS
BEFORE there was a coalition, the first trails built under the name SLVGO were the Shriver-Wright State Wildlife Area and Stone Quarry Trails. From there the next batch of continuous loops was developed near the Alamosa Disc Golf Course. The Rio and Oxbow Trails provided in-city space to walk, bird, or get away.
Who builds these?
Within the ranks of SLVGO’s staff, you will find the GOATs, or Great Outdoor Action Team. They are the boots on the ground. They are a tightly knit group that works on different trails just about every week during the trail season clearing treefall, building up old trails, building bridges, moving earth, or making brand-new trails in free ranges or city spaces.
On top of an ecological and environmental maintenance goal, or mission, they are also in the business of giving locals outdoor spaces that aren’t too far away from home. The Monte Vista Wetlands Trail is the first of its kind within the city limits of Monte Vista. The Rito Seco trail just outside San Luis gives mountain bikers an easily accessible option in the Sangre de Cristos. With the addition of newly milled bridges being added in late October, the Rito Seco Trail is fully open. They are all within a short drive or long walk from most front doors.
GOATs is an acronym, no doubt, but it’s also an astute and symbolic description of these people. Their workspaces are often high up in the Sangre de Cristos, or deep in the San Juans. They carry chainsaws and axes, picks and shovels, hammers, and survival gear to a designated area, and then get to work. For the more on-the-nose description, they clear land and scale peaks like a herd of mountain goats.
Before there were GOATS, there were groups of volunteers made up of locals, hunters, mountaineers, anglers, and anyone who had the will to help clear a trail, even a little bit at a time. The Boot Hill Motorcycle Club stewarded, and still stewards trails, in and around the Valley. Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado and the Southwest Conservation Corps have maintained SLV trails for many years. Last but not least, trail crews from Rio Grande National Forest, BLM, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and the National Park Service have been the mainstay of trail maintenance, but due to budget cuts and swaths of land under the government’s belt, these trail crews can’t always be everywhere at once.
EVEN with all these different hands and help there is still so much more work to do. With an increase in outdoor recreation since the beginning of the pandemic, the need for more trail volunteers has skyrocketed. More trails are being used and damaged over time, but also trails that haven’t been hiked for years or longer are being discovered once again, and are often in disarray. On top of that, an ever-increasing area of land is falling victim to spruce and pine beetles.
Patrick wrote in an email to me, “With the on-going spruce beetle epidemic, more work is being created for everyone and we hope to continue to help where we can.”
The GOATs’ trail-building and maintenance is a large portion of what SLVGO does around the Valley, but it isn’t all it does.
Revitalize the Rio, for example, was a monthslong community project built around the long-term benefits of our community’s involvement and relationship with the Rio Grande. This is where Patrick started. Back then, he was hired on as the community engagement coordinator “working with community members and leaders to create a vision for activating the Rio Grande corridor for recreation and conservation in Alamosa, and turned into an effort in increasing the overall livability and health and wellness of the community.”
The Revitalize the Rio project was the culmination of efforts of five partners looking to build upon the already existing infrastructure around the Rio Grande to promote health, wellness, economy, and community. The partners met over the course of six months to collaborate on how the Rio Grande can benefit the community on all fronts.
There’s a constantly evolving community conversation on how life can be improved in the San Luis Valley through outdoor engagement and education. Outdoor recreation is a key staple, but environmental studies and the human impact on wildlife and ecology play a vital role. SLVGO seeks the opinions of wildlife, water, and land experts during the conversations, and planning processes. “We adjust accordingly,” said Mick, if these experts suggest a different course of action.
SLVGO also is spearheading an initiative to create the Sangre de Cristo Dark Sky Reserve, a 3,800-square-mile-area that incorporates the San Luis Valley, the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area, Wet Mountain Valley, and Huerfano County. If the dark sky application is approved, this would be the largest dark sky reserve in the world. Dani Gronhovd has been working with municipalities in the San Luis Valley’s counties, as well as in our neighboring counties of Custer and Huerfano, to educate and advise on changes that would have to take place if the application is approved.
The larger, overarching fundamental value of SLVGO is its commitment to community engagement, and not just in Alamosa where it is are based. SLVGO is are dedicated to having conversations with community members all over the San Luis Valley, Creede included.
As projects roll out and during the planning and logistics phases, the community becomes involved. Feedback, both for and against, is required for these projects to take place. The SLVGO board of directors has a voice for the community as well, as each board member also holds a role in different parts of the Valley.
WHERE DOES SLVGO GET FUNDING?
IT’S a mix of funding, really. First and foremost, like most non-profits, SLVGO is always in grant-writing mode. Local donations are a direct correlation to the group’s importance in the community. Recent funding includes support from GOCO’s, Resilient Community Fund to work on the Rito Seco and MV Wetlands Trail projects. SLVGO also gets income from local community contracts.
Daniel said that SLVGO has to “control the projects we’re involved in.” With the near-unlimited space of the San Luis Valley, and the many projects that communities have in their pipelines, knowing the limits of what can and should be done is vital.
Daniel also mentioned that SLVGO has a “pretty bold master plan,” that “will continue to evolve.” What is the master plan? It’s more about how people want trails and open space available to them. It’s the message, drive, and goal that the organization uses as a guide; a large part of this master plan is “letting the community guide us.”
I wanted to know some of the community members, the people, that have been vital in the organization’s success. I had known that Carla Shriver, as Daniel put it, “kept the torch lit for a long time.” But there are so many other voices and personalities at play.
To name a few: Marty Jones and Doug Camp from Trout Unlimited; Andy Rice, the Alamosa Parks and Rec director; Ben Dune, Costilla County administrator; and the Asplunds.
Every county in the San Luis Valley, Mineral County included, has been involved at every step. County staff, the commissioners, and the residents have advocated, criticized, or otherwise voiced their concerns or lack thereof to SLVGO, which has ultimately allowed this organization to continue working and making the outdoors a better, more inclusive space for everyone. Using public space in a healthy, conscious way is how we as an outdoor community can better engage with these sacred lands. Our outdoors are of an abundant cultural significance.
TOIVO MALM TRAIL NETWORK
THE Alamosa Open Space, just southeast of the recycling center, really belonged to no one in a sense. Now, it is a testament to a family’s love for the calm and stillness of a summer river. It is an oasis for birds and insects. It became a stepping stone for a more connected trail system that one day hopes to tie the entire Alamosa Trail Network with the Alamosa Wildlife Refuge.
From east to west there will be a series of trails that connect and wind around the geography of our town. There are many hurdles, but the Toivo Malm Trial Network connected Alamosa’s south side to the wildlife refuge, which was truly a test of how to balance trails with conservation. This ultimately led to a prime example of how the community and the state can come together to find this harmony.
NUMBERS AND STATS
I sat down with Ortiz in his train depot office that looks out over the 600 block of State Avenue, to get some numbers.
The numbers are really to provide perspective on the hard work being done.
As of 2020 there have been 12.4 acres of total activated public space. As of 2018, 32 miles have been maintained, 15 of which were forest service trail maintenance.
Trail funding since 2018 sits at around $295,000, which incorporates every aspect of trails, planning, grants, community engagement, and cost of services (GOAT labor). Their supplies are harbored from local lumber and hardware stores.
WHY IT MATTERS
OUR environment and our land are at risk. In the Valley, our land is our home, it is our connection to the time before us, as some areas of this place seem untouched by modern man. An hour away you can travel a thousand years into the past without even realizing it.
The outdoors are a precious material that if not carefully looked after will dwindle away. The communities of the San Luis Valley need the outlet of the outdoors to thrive and survive, and SLVGO has shown and proven that through engagement with our community, our state representatives, and our state and federal government, we can enact enough change to ensure that public, open spaces remain that way.
Two messages stuck with me during my conversations with the members of San Luis Valley Great Outdoors: manifest your own destiny and hold on to the staunch belief that the outdoors are vital to people’s health.