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Access Fund Halts Energy Project in Unaweep Canyon, Future Still Uncertain

unaweep canyon driggs mansion ruinsThe Driggs Mansion ruins along State Highway 141 in Unaweep Canyon, Colo.; (photo/Shutterstock)
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Climbers scored an access win last week when an energy project succumbed to snags in the world’s only two-mouthed canyon — for now.

Besides its inherent natural resources and unmatched status among the planet’s canyons, Colorado’s Unaweep Canyon is home to around 2,000 rock climbs and boulder problems.

On Monday, the Access Fund reported that a land use review it performed helped obstruct an energy development project seen as a threat to those climbs.

Xcel Energy’s plans in the canyon revolved around a substantial hydropower dam, the Colorado Sun reported. But conflicts involving Access Fund-owned land introduced discrepancies. And on Nov. 2, Xcel Energy killed its proposal.

The move effectively protects climbing in Unaweep “for now,” the Access Fund said in a news release. In the release, the nonprofit noted that Xcel Energy’s next moves are “unknown.”


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Xcel’s Lasting Presence in Unaweep Not Finalized

Energy development in the canyon’s future could still loom. Xcel had obtained permission to continue studying the project from regulatory officials as late as the day before it halted progress.

Unaweep stretches about 15 miles along State Highway 141 just south of Grand Junction, Colo. It contains a patchwork of public and private land.

The Access Fund first started working in the canyon in 1991. The nonprofit now holds multiple conservation easements on property the Western Colorado Climbers Coalition (WCCC) owns in the area. And when it reviewed Xcel Energy’s development plan, it said it found the company’s plans would cross through numerous climbing areas.

Three WCCC-owned parcels it served easements on were at risk, the Access Fund said.

The Colorado Sun obtained a statement from Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy as part of a Nov. 2 article. According to the outlet, spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo’s emailed statement said the utility had identified “multiple concerns” in Unaweep, and the location was “no longer being considered.”

Paul Stoner of WCCC echoed that finality in a statement to the Access Fund. Meanwhile, the nonprofit’s executive director, Chris Winter, cautioned against declaring Xcel’s involvement in Unaweep dead for good.

“We’re thrilled that Xcel will no longer pursue a major energy development project at this site, which is so special to the climbing community in Western Colorado and beyond,” Stoner told the Access Fund.

But Winter walked the language back, saying, “we’re thrilled that this section of Unaweep Canyon is safe from energy development for now.”

A spokesperson for the Access Fund confirmed today that the two men were both referring to the Xcel project in question. He also said that he had worked to obtain the statement the Colorado Sun referred to but had not succeeded yet.

Still, the spokesperson said that Winter’s experience as an attorney stopped him from painting Xcel’s future plans as finalized.

“You just never know what a big company is going to do with a proposal like this. It’s safe for now, but we’re not 100% declaring victory,” the spokesperson said. “But Xcel did say they are pulling this proposal, and we feel really good about that announcement.”

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