(This article was published by National Geographic on February 13, 2014.)
IN THE SMALL town of Fraser, Colorado, a bronze Dwight D. Eisenhower is having a good day: Fly fishing, he has just caught a trout out of the river and is skillfully depositing it into his basket. The former president is appropriately dressed for the occasion with wading boots, an angler’s vest, and a wide-brim hat. Decades before, the real Ike could be seen angling much the same way in about the same spot.
For Kirk Klancke, it’s a nice reminder of what the Fraser River once was: a sportsman’s paradise, one that attracted such a five-star guest.
“It gives the feel of what it was like here in Eisenhower’s day,” Klancke says about the small town in Grand County, near the Winter Park Resort and about 70 miles (113 kilometers) northwest of Denver.
That’s not to say the river that runs through this old logging town isn’t still full of adventure. In fact, Klancke himself is an angler who fishes just downstream from his office. However, the river is not the same as it was in the 1950s or even the early 1970s, when a young Klancke made his way to the valley.
Fast-forward 40 years: Now Klancke spends much of his time working to protect the river Eisenhower once regularly fished. His efforts have given him statewide—and even national—attention and put him on the front lines of the conservation movement and the Change the Course Campaign, which provides funding to support projects that restore water to the Fraser and other parts of the Colorado River Basin.
“Kirk is a champion,” says Todd Reeve, CEO of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation in Portland, Oregon, which runs the Change the Course Campaign with National Geographic and Los Angeles-based Participant Media. “He’s living, breathing, and dreaming the way water is used, managed, and valued in the Fraser River.”
The Change the Course campaign has provided funding to the Colorado Water Trust and the Winter Park Ranch Water and Sanitation District to support a pilot, short-term lease of water to help boost flows in the Fraser. Last year, the joint effort helped restore millions of gallons of water to the Fraser, says Reeve, who gives Klancke significant credit as a catalyst.
“He thinks outside of the box,” Reeve says.
An avid outdoorsman with an aversion to desk work, Klancke would rather be knee deep in the river or on the slopes of the nearby Winter Park ski resort, but he often spends more hours than he would care to in front of a computer. Fighting for the water that flows through the valley he loves so much is worth the trade-off, he says.
Klancke serves as the district water manager, a position that keeps his eye on the Fraser and on the northern Colorado River. At 62, he appears the picture of health, having kept the frame of his high school football days, probably as a result of regular bicycling and skiing and a diet primarily consisting of fish and vegetables.
“I only eat lean proteins,” he explains. “And I only eat until I’m comfortable.”
Klancke is not a lawyer or an engineer and, in fact, he doesn’t even hold a college degree, but he will talk about water rights, water flows, and irrigation all day and night, in his office, on the slopes, or out on the cross-country trails behind his secluded house.
That includes regaling visitors about how state water code written in the middle of the 19th century lets consumers acquire water rights for property far away from the source.
“In Colorado we allow someone to take water from one basin and leave it in another, and that’s what is wreaking environmental havoc,” he argues. “We can’t change the law, so we need to find multiple other ways to keep the streams alive.”
Erected in 2006, the statue of President Ike is one of those other ways—a tool for education, he says.
Local artist Howard Neville designed the statue to represent the town’s place in history as Eisenhower’s favorite summer getaway from Washington. Klancke raised more than $60,000 for the project, not for the history, he says, but for what it says about the value of the river.
“This is a presidential river,” he explains. “The leader of the free world could fish anywhere and he chose here. This is a special river. You have to save it.”
That’s the type of lesson Klancke wants more people to hear.
“Legislation is too difficult, and litigation is too expensive,” he says. “Education is what is going to save these rivers.”
“Save the Fraser River”
Klancke has been educating the community about the issue for more than three decades, and it shows. Walking around Fraser and neighboring Winter Park with Klancke is not unlike walking around with a rock star: Everyone seems to know him and his efforts.
There are “Save the Fraser River” bumper stickers everywhere. A coffee shop at the base of the Winter Park ski resort has a water jug for visitors, but they ask customers to take only what they need so they might help “Save the Fraser” themselves.
Klancke also works with teachers, taking middle and high school students around the region for hikes, explaining the value the rivers provide and the threat they are under. In December, students from a local art club won the Wyland National Mural Contest using “Save the Fraser River” as a theme. Their mural depicted children and animals happily playing alongside the river.
Klancke’s own grandchildren were not immune, either. Now living in Denver, his 14-year-old grandson often visits the area, giving up his favorite electronics for hikes and fishing along the river. His granddaughter spoke about her passion for the Fraser during a Miss Teen Colorado pageant, a contest she won.
“I’m proud of our kids and our local educators,” Klancke says. “It’s such a great opportunity to engage with those young minds. And they teach the parents, so the education spreads.”
But the locals are not the problem, given that an estimated 60 percent of the water goes over the slope to Denver, where, he says, it’s used to grow lawns of Kentucky bluegrass in a region that would never support lawns naturally. Now there’s a plan for Denver to take another 15 percent.
Klancke doesn’t blame the population of Denver, and he’s not trying to stop the flow of water to its 650,000 residents. Rather, he just wants them to know the facts about where the water comes from, where it goes, and what wasting it does to the Fraser Valley.
“Conservation is a great solution,” he says. “[In Denver,] they’re not educated that they live in a desert. We’re killing our natural environment to create an artificial one.”
A River Epiphany
Klancke left his Minnesota home in the early 1950s and settled in Colorado at age 19 with his wife Maryanne. The couple soon bought a house, had two daughters, and started to make their mark in the world.
Kirk’s first legacy was a physical one: For 30 years he worked as a stonemason, building fireplaces and other structures for his neighbors’ houses and businesses. Maryanne made her mark by getting involved in the community, one of the inspirations for Kirk’s own sense of service.
However, it was an epiphany during a wayward wander when he was only 20 years old that kindled a concern for the river’s flow. During a four-day visit to one of his favorite spots in the state, Horseshoe Lake, he was following Iron Creek when he came upon “this big concrete structure.”
“All of the water from Iron Creek is going into this structure, and the other side is dry,” he explains. “I thought, ‘That can’t be good. Where is all the water going?'”
Later he discovered a similar thing happening with the Fraser River, from which 60 percent of the water disappears into a pipe that runs through the mountain range alongside the train tunnel and on to Denver. He joined a local watershed board and soon after became its president.
In 2005, when the nonprofit advocacy group American Rivers issued their list of the most endangered rivers, the Fraser made number three. Trout Unlimited, an organization devoted to protecting coldwater fishing, then came to the town of Fraser and asked, “How can we help you?”
Klancke led Trout Unlimited’s local chapter for five years. With such national support, he raised the funds for the Eisenhower statue, as well as for a music festival celebrating the river and for the construction of a sediment basin. Local development and road traffic was causing eroded sediment to flow into the shallow river, killing the insects trout consume. The new basin keeps the runoff from strangling the life that can still be found in the river, and collects that sediment for a gravel company that uses it in road base.
All of this led to Field and Stream magazine naming Klancke one of its “Heroes of Conservation” in 2011. The magazine presented his award in Washington, D.C., and while there, Klancke visited the Capitol to lobby members of Congress, including Senator Mark Udall of Colorado. Udall further honored Klancke in a floor speech.
“His work embodies what I have long known to be true,” Udall said. “We don’t inherit the Earth from our parents—we borrow it from our children and the generations that follow.”
While Klancke spends many days and hours on his advocacy, he is known to skip out on the occasional afternoon when the skiing conditions are just right or he needs the solitude only fishing can give him. In a matter of months he plans to retire from his official position, though he admits his advocacy will never cease.
Still, retirement should give him a little more time to enjoy the things that kept him here for so long: skiing, fishing, hiking, and just appreciating the scenery and the small-town community.
“I am not a wealthy man,” Klancke says. “But I have a wealthy lifestyle.”
Help restore water to the Colorado River Basin by joining Change the Course. Sign up online or text ‘River’ to 77177.
Special thanks to Silk and Coca-Cola, Charter Sponsors for Change the Course. Additional funding generously provided by the Walton Family Foundation.