Hands across the water: A diverse coalition achieves long-sought protection for the Hermosa area

A diverse coalition achieves long-sought protection for the Hermosa area

Angling is one of the many recreational uses for which the Hermosa Creek area north of Durangis is beloved. Courtesy photo

Angling is one of the many recreational uses for which the Hermosa Creek area north of Durango is beloved. Courtesy photo

Hundreds of people came together Dec. 19 in Durango to celebrate both the protection of a special area and a rare example of bipartisanship and collaboration.

The ebullient crowd thronged into the Powerhouse Science Center to hail the long-worked- for passage of the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, which preserves approximately 108,000 acres of the San Juan National Forest north of Durango.

The act was included as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. President Obama signed it into law later that afternoon.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D), who introduced the legislation in the Senate, and Rep. Scott Tipton (R), who introduced it in the House, attended the gathering. (Colorado Sen. Mark Udall also co-sponsored the bill.)


U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, left, and Sen. Michael Bennet, both of Colorado, sponsored the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act in their respective houses of Congress. Here, they share a moment during a Dec. 19 celebration of the act’s passage in Durango. Photo by Gail Binkly.

Bennet called the act “a result that is just extraordinary, especially at a time when the Congress is as dysfunctional as it is. . . This is the way legislation ought to be done, from the ground up, not the top down.”

He added that the effort showed that “democracy is still alive somewhere in the United States” and told the group, “If we could just ship your example to Washington, D.C., there would be nothing we wouldn’t be able to solve.”

Tipton likewise hailed the achievement, telling the crowd, “None of this could have happened without the support we have at the local level.”

He added, “It shows that when we work in that collaborative process, we can actually make things happen.”

Over the last 50 years, there were periodic efforts to protect the Hermosa watershed, said Ed Zink, a member of the group that worked on the latest such effort. All of them shared the same premises, he said: “The Hermosa is special, the water is the most valuable resource, the public wanted both industry and recreation, just keep it the way it is.”

But nothing concrete resulted from those efforts until the fifth and final one was launched, he said, when everything seemed to come together. In 2006, the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a Durango-based environmental nonprofit, approached the Southwestern Water Conservation District to suggest a joint effort to look at management of a half-dozen river basins in Southwest Colorado. Those rivers, or portions of them, had been listed as “suitable” for a federal Wild and Scenic River designation by the San Juan National Forest in its new management plan, something that caused discomfort among area water-users and water districts.

The citizens alliance and SWCD formed a steering committee and launched a public process – open to all interested parties – to study the basins with an eye to their management, beginning with Hermosa Creek.

Funding came from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Trout Unlimited, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, and the National Forest Foundation, in addition to the citizens alliance and water district.

Even in winter, Hermosa Creek sees a great deal of recreational use, as this trail attests. Courtesy photo

Even in winter, Hermosa Creek sees a great deal of recreational use, as
this trail attests. Courtesy photo

Nearly 100 people showed up to the first meeting of the Hermosa Creek Workgroup in April 2008. (Full disclosure: Reporter Gail Binkly took minutes for some of the meetings.)

“Everyone immediately realized how much the Hermosa area is beloved for many different reasons,” said the workgroup’s facilitator, Marsha Porter-Norton, at the Dec. 19 gathering. She said the group eventually agreed on three themes: the need for permanent protection of the entire watershed (something unique in legislation), the promotion of excellent water quality in the creek, and the need to balance those goals with water development, economic development, and recreational uses.

The workgroup began by developing a values statement summarizing what was special about the area: “The Hermosa Creek Area is exceptional because it is a large, intact (unfragmented) natural watershed containing diverse ecosystems, including fish, plants and wildlife, over a broad elevation range, and supports a variety of multiple uses, including recreation and grazing, in the vicinity of a large town.”

The workgroup met regularly for close to two years, hammering out compromises that could be acceptable to hikers and mountain bikers, logging and mining interests, grazing permit holders, motorized users, hunters and anglers, wildlife advocates, other recreation groups, local governments, the ski area, and supporters of future water planning and development.

“Everybody’s opinion counted,” Porter- Norton emphasized. “Everybody was heard. That took some time. . . People treated each other with respect. The perspective was, ‘How can I make this work?’, not, ‘How can I shoot down somebody else’s idea?’”

Once the broad workgroup had reached consensus on its goals, a smaller drafting committee wrote a final report, which led to their crafting specifics for the legislation. The composition of that committee reflected the workgroup’s diversity: Jimbo Buickerood of the San Juan Citizens Alliance; Chuck Wanner and Mely Whiting of Trout Unlimited; Steve Fearn and Bruce Whitehead, Southwestern Water Conservation District; Jeff Widen, The Wilderness Society, John Whitney of Senator Bennet’s office; Thurman Wilson, a retired employee with the San Juan National Forest; and Zink, a rancher, outfitter, and recreationist in the Hermosa area.

That drafting committee met 20 or more times before completing a package of recommended measures that Bennet and Udall agreed to take forward. The Hermosa landscape and the collaborative effort were featured in a segment of the public-television series, “This American Land.”

Buickerood told the Free Press there were two points at which the fate of the entire effort seemed to hang in the balance.

One was when the drafting committee was working to take the larger group’s consensus and “craft that into just the perfect balance to reflect what the group wanted,” a very delicate task.

The other, he said, came this fall, after the bill was introduced. The House Natural Resources Committee altered some major provisions, for instance, allowing extractive development in more areas than the community had agreed to.

“It was very different from the original legislation proposed by Senator Bennet and Congressman Tipton,” Buickerood said. “It was manipulated by House committee staff in very significant ways.”

The community “responded quite vigorously,” he noted, saying in letters to the editor and in contacts with their representatives that “this is not what we spent years talking about, agreeing upon, and drafting.”

Tipton and Bennet then were able to restore the legislation to something that reflected the community’s original intent.

“Tipton really got it,” Buickerood said. “He heard people were concerned and his staff worked closely with Bennet’s staff to get it back to the original purpose.”

The act designates approximately 70,650 acres as a special management area. Within this SMA, historic uses will be honored, and there are areas where future potential logging and grazing may be allowed. Also, a possible dam site identified by the State of Colorado through its Statewide Water Supply Initiative process remains in place.

Some 43,000 un-roaded acres within the 70,000 would be protected from future roadbuilding.

Another 38,000 acres of the most rugged portion of the watershed is set aside as a wilderness area, where no roads, motorized or mechanized uses, mineral development or logging are allowed.

Other provisions in the bill include:

  • The conveyance of 82 acres of BLM land to La Plata County for eventual use as an events center;
  • The release of the western half of the West Needles Wilderness Study Area on Molas Pass, allowing the area, a popular snowmobiling site, to become the Molas Park Recreation Area. The other piece of the WSA was transferred from BLM management to the Forest Service and will retain its WSA status.
  • Mineral withdrawals (meaning no further mineral and energy extraction) for Animas Mountain, Perins Peak, Horse Gulch and the area around Lake Nighthorse.

Left hanging, however, is the question of whether Hermosa Creek should be proposed for federal designation as a Wild and Scenic River. That issue is still being mulled by the River Protection Workgroup Steering Committee.

San Juan County (Colo.) Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier said the act resolved a major issue for his county.

“The BLM was going to take a huge loop of the Molas [Snowmobile] Loop from us because it couldn’t go through a Wilderness Study Area,” he said. “It would have been a huge impact to Silverton’s economy.

“I asked them, ‘How can we change this?’ They said it took an act of Congress.” So it was added to the bill.

Fetchenhier said the act’s passage was a remarkable achievement.

“The fact we have set aside 100,000 acres of land when there is so much pressure [for development] is an amazing thing,” he said.

“It’s given me faith in my government again that we can cooperate on a federal level and make things happen.”

“We have done a remarkable thing,” agreed Zink in closing. He momentarily choked up. “I’m kind of emotional about this,” he said.

Clearly, he wasn’t the only one.

From January 2015.