Protection of watersheds throughout the San Juans are becoming increasingly important, locally and nationally, as several bills, including the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, make their way through Congress./ Photo by Steve Eginoire

The river runs through it

Local workgroup at the heart of bipartisan bill takes its next steps

by Tracy Chamberlin

Acting up

For more information about the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, visit

For more about the River Protection Workgroup, visit

It began at a small table in a small town in Southwestern Colorado. A discussion about the future of waterways in this region of the West. Would they be protected for future generations? Would those generations be able to fish, hike, bike, hunt, mine, recreate or drink? How could anyone be certain?

Those questions and the ideas they inspired flowed from that small table all the way to the halls of Capital Hill in Washington, where Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, recently spoke to a senate committee in support of the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, legislation that could provide the next generation with the confidence that those waterways will be protected.

“Certainty has a link to trust … I think that’s true for everyone,” said Jimbo Buickerood, Public Lands Coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance and a member of the River Protection Workgroup’s Steering Committee, an assortment of local water officials, congressional staffers, conservationists, tribal leaders, sportsmen and others.

This committee represents the types of river users and other interested parties that make up the River Protection Workgroup, or RPW, tasked with finding ways to protect and manage the area’s main waterways: the Animas, San Juan, Vallecito/Pine River, Piedra rivers as well as Hermosa Creek.

The RPW began those talks in five smaller groups, broken down by waterway. They first examined current protections, and then made suggestions on how those protections could be improved or updated.

Proposals from the Hermosa group were used to craft the Hermosa Act, which was originally introduced by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., in 2012. It could offer the desired congressional protection for almost 108,000 acres in the San Juan National Forest north of Durango by giving it special management and wilderness designations.

Most of the land, tagged the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Area, would remain open to mountain biking, grazing, some timber harvesting and motorized recreation. About 38,000 acres of it 4 would be protected under the Wilderness Act of 1964, which does not allow for roads, mechanized recreation or mineral development.

In its second run through congressional committees, the Hermosa Act has several things going for it that the last piece of legislation did not.

For one, bipartisan backing. Tipton was not behind the first act introduced in the 112th Congress by Bennet, and co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. In the 113th session, however, he’s on board.

Also, there are some key changes in the wording of the bill. First is a small change that transfers 111 acres near Grandview, currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management, to La Plata County. The second change deals with mineral development. In the 2012 version, protections against future mineral development and oil and gas leasing or exploration on Animas Mountain and Perins Peak Wildlife Area were included. The 2013 version extends those protections to the Horse Gulch and Lake Nighthorse areas.

Another third key difference is the addition of the final section of the 19-page document titled “Release of Wilderness Study Areas.” It refers to 461 acres of land in the West Needles Contiguous Wilderness Study Area in San Juan County. If the bill passes, this area would no longer be considered a Wilderness Study Area.

This level area of mixed forest and meadow adjacent to Molas Lake on the east side of Highway 550 has been used by commercial and recreational snowmobilers for decades. But a recent change, which clarifies the BLM’s management of this area, would put an end to that.

“If this bill is not passed, then snowmobiling will cease in this region following the 2013-2014 season,” Tipton said.

For commercial organizations, that’s true. The BLM will no longer issue permits after this winter. As for private individuals who just take their snowmobile out to the area for an afternoon of recreation, they actually get one extra season.

According to officials, it typically takes longer to get the word out about changes like snowmobile use at West Needles. So, individuals will also be able to use the area during the 2014-15 season.

Originally prompted by a request to inventory Wilderness Study Areas in 1976, the BLM lands in this area have undergone several changes. One change that did not occur was releasing those 461 acres in West Needles from Wilderness Study Area designation. As a WSA, it is required to be managed as suitable for preservation as wilderness. A recent update to the BLM manual, referred to as 6330, was the final step in the administrative process that defines the management of these lands.

For Jeff Christenson, Outdoor Recreation Planner for the BLM Tres Rios office, tracking that trail through regulatory language and federal documentation was one of his biggest challenges. Another was implementing the resulting directives, which, certainly in the case of West Needles, means change and uncertainty for many who work and play in the area.

After all, it’s not just the recreation that so many have enjoyed over the decades, it’s also a part of Silverton’s financial future.

San Juan County Commissioner Pete McKay expressed in a recent press release gratitude to both Tipton and Bennet and support for the Hermosa Act, which would preserve snowmobiling opportunities on Molas Pass, something that’s “critical to Silverton’s winter economy.”

Christenson said the agency is looking for alternative sites, but there are no assurances they’ll find an area with the same type of terrain that makes West Needles so popular. He added it’s situations like the one at West Needles that reveal why the new guidance is needed. It provides some assurance for future management decisions.

So, Buickerood isn’t the only one looking for certainty. For him, that’s the key component of the RPW, moving the issue out of the administrative kettle and getting the certainty that only congressional decisions can provide.

Most of what the Steering Committee is looking for as it moves on to Phase II, regional discussions, is legislation that can move through Congress and onto the president’s desk.

From Wild and Scenic Rivers to Wilderness designations to the release of some lands like the West Needles area. Nothing is off the table.

“Water’s never simple,” said Tami Graham, River Protection Workgroup Facilitator. Finding the sweet spot, as she calls it, between the diverse interests and the needs of the community is the goal.

Much like the bipartisan effort helping the Hermosa Act make its way through the 113th Congress, these diverse interests foster certainty, durability and that sweet spot between lasting protection and lasting opportunities for development.

So as the first piece of legislation spawned from the RPW trickles through committees on Capitol Hill, that group of river users returns to the small table in a small mountain town in the Southwest.