Anytime you task five people with reaching agreement on a subject more complex than where to go for dinner, the challenge of finding consensus becomes painfully clear. Multiply that number by a dozen or more and add unique and long-standing positions on how the question at hand must be answered, and the prospects for agreement can become very dim indeed. It is nothing short of miraculous, then, that the Hermosa Creek River Protection Workgroup was able to reach consensus on a protection plan for the watershed. It is fitting that Sen. Michael Bennet is recognizing and acting on that agreement.
The discussions about how best to manage the 100,000-acre Hermosa Creek watershed north of Durango began in 2008, and wrapped up in early 2010 after more than twice the amount of time budgeted for the process had elapsed. The overage was worth it, though, as the end consensus product represented something all interests could live with – and the stakeholders were hardly a homogenous bunch. Wilderness advocates, mountain bikers, mining representatives, local governments, ranchers, hunters, water managers and horseback riders were among the diversity of interests at the table to discuss their shared – and divergent – visions for the watershed. In no small feat, facilitator Marsha Porter-Norton herded these cats to a consensus position wherein everyone walks away with something they like – and with something they have to swallow.
Sen. Bennet has embodied the group’s recommendations in a draft bill, the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act of 2011, picking up the work begun by former Rep. John Salazar, D-Manassa, who lost his re-election bid in November. In so doing, Bennet is honoring the workgroup’s efforts.
The measure would create a three-zone special management area for Hermosa Creek made up of 37,236 acres of wilderness on the west side of the creek, a 43,217-acre roadless area and a zone open to timber activity and other uses. In crafting this protection at the watershed scale, Bennet’s legislation takes a unique approach to land preservation, but it is one that best encompasses the shared values that all the stakeholders in the process articulated. It codifies local desires, arrived at thoughtfully and inclusively, into federal legislation. Once the legislation is passed, it will be up to the Forest Service to provide the details about how to implement the special management area, through its agency planning process. That will afford another opportunity for public input.
And there will be more discussions of Hermosa Creek beyond that. Bennet’s measure extends many important protections to the watershed, but leaves aside, for now, the question of Wild and Scenic River designation for the creek. That omission is by design, and is a question that will need to be answered at some future point, as the creek has been found suitable for the designation. In the meantime, though, the land protection recommendations are a welcome step that developed in the best possible way: by bringing all the interests together to have frank, if challenging, conversations about shared values and a collaborative vision for protecting those values.