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Ouray Ice Park at crossroads as board, city negotiate management

Every winter, ice farmers in Ouray sculpt the town’s most indispensable attraction.

In an elegant fusion of temperature, gravity and water, the farmers engineer a fleeting masterpiece, spraying tens of thousands of gallons of water a night into the Uncompahgre Gorge.

By January, the 3 miles of vertical ice draws climbers from around the globe. Without the Ouray Ice Park, the city of about 1,000 would not have a winter economy. Before the park, Ouray went largely dark in the winter. Today, a half-dozen restaurants remain open year-round and hotels are planning expansions.

A volunteer board has governed North America’s premier ice park for more than 20 years, shepherding both its annual birth and the festival that fills Ouray with thousands of climbers on a single, essential weekend in January.

But after two challenging seasons of warm weather and water woes, that volunteer board last year began planning to cede control of the park to the city. It hasn’t gone as smoothly as hoped.

This month the city and the board of the nonprofit Ouray Ice Park Inc., or OIPI, will meet with a mediator to help set a course to sustain the city as the country’s ice climbing capital. The one thing they do agree on is that they must protect the economic engine that is as fragile as the ice itself. They just can’t afford to mess it up.

“At some point we need to work our way into a more sustainable model,” said ice park board president Lora Slawitschka, who has spent more than two decades working to support the park, which helps fill her Ouray Chalet Inn in the winter. “What that could look like, that’s what we are trying to figure out. There are certainly some growing pains.”

The park uses about 200,000 gallons of water a night to create more than 200 precipitous ice routes along a mile of canyon above the Uncompahgre River.

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