The Lake Fork of the Gunnison River Watershed lies within two counties; the northern portion of Hinsdale County and a small southern portion of Gunnison County. The vast majority of land is under government ownership; the Bureau of Land Management manages 53%, the United States Forest Service 27%, and the State of Colorado less than 1%. Approximately 20% is privately owned. Because of the rugged mountainous terrain, especially in the southern half of the watershed, the majority of privately held land is concentrated along the Lake Fork River corridor.
The watershed is sparsely populated with approximately 900 residents and a population density of less than one person per square mile. The Town of Lake City, county seat of Hinsdale County, is the only incorporated town in the watershed. Nearly 40% of the watershed’s population lives in the town. During the summer months, the watershed’s population increases dramatically reaching numbers of 2,000 to 3,000 persons.
Population has grown and contracted sporadically throughout history, but the average annual growth for the three decades ending with the 2000 Census was 3.5%. Conservative estimates are that growth will continue at 2.5% per annum, leading to a watershed population of 1,100 to 1,200 by 2015.
A Land Use Inventory conducted for Hinsdale County (the southern and upper reaches of the watershed) in conjunction with preparation of a development master plan in 2005-06, documented 1,304 residences, with only 360 occupied year-round. The inventory identified 531 unimproved platted lots on a total of 607 acres available for future development. Most of these small acreage lots are located outside of Lake City along the Lake Fork corridor. In addition, approximately 6,500 acres are patented mining claims, many of which are in sensitive alpine areas or in the Alpine Loop view shed.
Much of the private land in Gunnison County (the lower watershed) is likewise located along the riparian corridor. Large acreage properties and ranches predominate. Over the past two decades, a few subdivisions (5 to 20 acre lots) have been developed, and some ranches have been subdivided into smaller tracts with a minimum of 35 acres. These data indicate that the lower Lake Fork is also experiencing development pressure, although with somewhat less intensity than in Hinsdale County.
With so many private acres in sensitive areas, there is a need to provide some level of environmental protection to ensure good water quality and habitat conservation, either through improved zoning or conservation actions.
The main economic industry of Hinsdale County is tourism. The summer months bring crowds of tourists to Lake City, while winter is slow. Many businesses shut down for the winter or cut down their hours of operation. A great number of year-round residents who are able to maintain employment during the winter are in the construction and realty businesses, as development of new homes for second homeowners is an ongoing process in Hinsdale County.
The majority of income comes from outside sources such as retirement funds or money earned outside of Hinsdale County. It is difficult for most residents to stay in Lake City all year-round. According to the 2000 Census, the median household income for Hinsdale County was $37,279 while the median family income was $42,159. The per capita income for Hinsdale County was $22,360 in the year 2000, and approximately 7.2% of the population was below the poverty line.
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