The return of a major community asset is part of this small historic town’s revitalization

Helper’s free-flowing river lures locals, tourists, tubers and more.

Helper • After a century of getting dammed, diverted, moved out of its channel and, in some places, tapped completely dry, a big section of the Price River now flows free.

The historic rail and mining town of Helper celebrated the completion of its river revitalization project this year. It marks the end of a decadelong effort to rid a seven-mile stretch of old piling structures impeding the river’s movement, along with concrete, junk and invasive plants choking the river’s banks. Residents and visitors can now fish, float and boat unimpeded through this increasingly popular tourist destination located halfway between Salt Lake City and Moab.

“We really see the river as a way to drive some economic diversification,” said Mayor Lenise Peterman. “When the coal mining industry took such a big dip in the ‘90s, Helper was practically a ghost town by 2012.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Helper mayor Lenise Peterman overlooks one of the many different stages of restoration that have taken place on the Price River adjacent to town on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. With added beach areas, trash removal and fish friendly habitat areas, the river has become popular with tubers along with pedestrians and cyclist that use the adjacent trail.

The town explored ways to restore the Price River’s health soon after. It completed a pilot project in 2014 at the heart of downtown which locals now call “Helper Beach.” Four more phases followed, restoring wetlands, floodplains and aquatic habitat with the help of the environmental nonprofit Trout Unlimited.

Peterman said the river became a major respite during COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, as residents spent time outdoors floating, fishing and getting some fresh air at safe social distances.

“When people first started tubing it, it was like an ‘aha’ moment,” the mayor said. “They started discovering the river locally. And that was just super reassuring.”

But the river’s biggest barrier, both literally figuratively, came down this year. The Gigliotti Dam on the north end of town created a 12-foot drop completely impassible by fish or boat. TU staff and city officials secured $1.5 million from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, $250,000 from the Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation, and another $250,000 through the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative to remove the structure over the winter.

“We had to jackhammer all the concrete out,” said Jordan Nielson, Trout Unlimited Utah water and habitat program director.

The project mined local boulders to create more natural step-down structures so fish, tubers and anglers can move freely up and down the stream. And it added one more must-see landmark to the increasingly artsy town, which has drummed up funding to beautify its downtown, improve its water infrastructure and support an array of galleries, eateries and renovated historic sites in recent years as well.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kids play on historic Main Street in Helper, Utah during a recent warm summer night known as Helper First Fridays. The gallery stroll night draws visitors the first Friday of every month that has seen a resurgence with artists joining natives, slowly reinventing the little town of just over 2,000 residents as an artist colony and tourist destination.

Trout Unlimited and Helper officials estimated all six phases of the Price River project would cost $6 million. The final price tag came in at $3.5 million, Nielson said.

“We’re doing restoration work here because the public loves the river for recreation,” he said. “There are also important fish populations in this river.”

As part of the river cleanup effort, the nonprofit worked with the Utah Division of Wildlife to reintroduce Colorado River cutthroat near Helper, a fish found only in the fragmented Green and Colorado riparian ecosystems.

“They’re doing great,” Nielson said. “So we have our native trout [back].”

Earlier this month, during the town’s annual art festival, Nielson presented Peterman with Trout Unlimited’s first-ever Community Action Towards Conservation Habitat (CATCH) award in honor of the town’s river transformation.

“We could think of no better place to give the first award to than a town named Helper,” Nielson said in a statement, “as much is needed to be done across Utah and the greater West to revitalize our cherished lands and waters.”

(Courtesy of Trout Unlimited) Jordan Nielson, right, and Zach Ahrens, center, of Trout Unlimited present Helper Mayor Lenise Peterman with the first Community Action Towards Conservation Habitat (CATCH) award to recognize the town's effort to restore a six-mile stretch of the Price River on Aug. 19, 2023.