The search for Wild and Scenic
Local waterways could score prestigious designation

SideStory: Animas River Days rides again

Rafts navigate the mellow waters of the Animas River south of town on Sunday afternoon. Various rivers throughout Southwest Colorado, including the Animas, are being studied for possible Wild and Scenic status./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Will Sands

Southwest Colorado is laced with some of the West’s finest rivers and streams. From the headwaters of the San Juan River to the confluence of the Dolores and Colorado rivers, dozens of pristine rivers and creeks flow through the San Juan Mountains. And yet the prestigious National Wild and Scenic River designation has somehow eluded the Four Corners area. Several agencies and groups are hoping that will change in the near future.

In 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was signed into law. The act proclaimed that “the established national policy of dams and other construction … needs to be complemented by a policy that would preserve other selected rivers or sections thereof in their free-flowing condition to protect the water quality of such rivers and to fulfill other vital national conservation purposes.”

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has accomplished this goal in some places. The Pacific Northwest has had an especially strong record for Wild and Scenic Rivers. Forty-seven rivers and streams have been designated and preserved in Oregon alone.

However, Colorado has but one Wild and Scenic River. After years of negotiations, controversy and in-fighting, the Cache la Poudre River, which flows from its Rocky Mountain National Park headwaters down through Fort Collins, was designated in the mid-1980s. Colorado’s poor record is destined to change, however, and a river in the San Juan Mountains could become the state’s second Wild and Scenic River.

“This is about the importance of protecting rivers,” said Dave Wegner, of the Friends of the Animas River. “They provide a tremendous resource to the people of Colorado and the nation. We now have a real opportunity in Southwest Colorado.”

The San Juan Public Lands Center is currently revising its management plans and considering which local rivers could be designated Wild and Scenic. To do this, the San Juan Public Lands Center is looking at the “outstandingly remarkable values” on all of Southwest Colorado’s rivers and streams.

“First you look to see if the river is free-flowing,” explained Mark Stiles, San Juan National Forest Supervisor. “Then you consider outstandingly remarkable values. The values can be biological, recreational, geologic and even archaeological.”

The San Juan Public Lands Center has short-listed4 dozens of creeks and rivers in the region that have one or more “outstandingly remarkable” values. On the list is everything from the entire Animas and Piedra rivers to the water-deprived Lower Dolores to obscure creeks like Cinnamon, Deer Park and Molas.

“Right now, we’re considering ‘eligibility,’ and these streams could qualify,” Stiles said. “Eventually we’ll look at ‘suitability,’ and shorten the list to rivers that should qualify. Then it goes to Washington, and Congress decides whether or not to make the designation.”

Like Wegner, Chuck Wanner, water issues coordinator for San Juan Citizens Alliance, sees opportunity on the horizon. Wanner also has a unique perspective on Wild and Scenic Rivers. As president of the citizens group, Preserve Our Poudre, he successfully lobbied for the Cache la Poudre’s designation nearly 20 years ago. Wanner acknowledged that the current list of “eligible” rivers is a long one and said that the San Juan Citizens Alliance will be focusing its energies on moving a handful to the top.

“We’re interested in having serious discussions about some potential candidates that could be carried forward as Wild and Scenic Rivers,” he said. “We’d like to do that with a locally formed stakeholder plan that brings everyone to the table.”

Among the waterways deserving of the Wild and Scenic stamp, Wanner listed the Piedra River, Hermosa Creek, large sections of the Animas River and sections of the upper Dolores River.

“The bottom line is we’re looking for five or six rivers or streams,” Wanner said. “Then we can have a broadly based community discussion. In the end, any decision will be the result of a community-based process.”

Stiles also gave an indication on why broad-based, community buy-in will be essential to any local designation. Wild and Scenic not only limits future degradation of the river, it ties up water rights and prevents any future use for domestic or agricultural needs.

“Wild and Scenic Rivers have always included water rights,” Stiles said. “Once these streams are listed as Wild and Scenic, you can’t have dam construction or water development. That’s a scary prospect for many people.”

However, the Forest Service has pledged to consider all user angles as it moves toward releasing a draft environmental impact statement this fall. “We’re looking at proposed dam sites and diversion structures and future water needs, and we’re weighing all the trade-offs,” Stiles said. “But I will say that the quality and needs of the river can certainly outweigh the needs of water users.”

Based on his experience with the Poudre’s designation, Wanner suggested that the San Juan Public Lands Center will be weighing the trade-offs for many months to come.

“It’ll take time,” he said. “If we get anything in a year, I’d be astounded. If we get anything in two years, it’ll be great. The final answer is going to take support from all of the stakeholders.” •



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