Protecting Hermosa Creek

The Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act of 2012’s path from conception to introduction was no fly-by-night undertaking. When Sen. Michael Bennet introduced the bill that would protect more than 100,000 acres of the Hermosa Creek drainage north of Durango, it culminated more than four years of work from a wide-ranging group of people and interests with one essential thing in common: a love for the area that the measure aims to protect.

That shared value was not sufficient to make the process by which Bennet’s bill came about an easy one, nor was it one without contention, compromise and trust-building.

The result is a proposal that offers significant protections for the key values inherent in the Hermosa Creek watershed, while allowing for a range of uses that address the broad spectrum of fans the area has drawn.

The measure would provide three levels of protection for the 108,000 acre area it encompasses. For 38,000 of these acres on the west side of Hermosa Creek, that would mean federal wilderness designation – a status reserved for only the most pristine wildlands. An additional 27,000 acres on the east side of the creek would be open to all existing historical uses including mountain biking, motorized recreation, some timber activity and grazing. For the remaining about 3,000 acres, these activities would be allowed, but future road-building and timber leases would be precluded by the measure.

This mix allows for holistic protection of an irreplaceable watershed that is home to a range of crucial species, has been deemed by the U.S. Forest Service to have Wild & Scenic River values worthy of protection, and is a regional draw for hikers, mountain bikers, hunters, anglers and horseback riders.

Bennet’s measure would ensure that each of these user groups has, in perpetuity, access to the type of wildland experience they seek, all while protecting the critical habitat that the Hermosa Creek watershed provides. There is very little, if anything, to not like about this bill, and the widespread support it enjoys – from the commissioners of San Juan and La Plata counties to wilderness, mountain biking, wildlife, water and sportsmen organizations, shows just how far and wide the positive feelings for Bennet’s measure are. That can only come from a thorough and inclusive process.

In keeping with its goal of protecting important areas in the region, the measure also includes a provision that withdraws federal mineral leases in the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area and Animas City Mountain.

These Durango landmarks are preserved and enjoyed for the pristine recreational opportunities they offer residents and visitors, as well as the habitat and connectivity they provide other species. Bennet is right to recognize the wisdom of keeping these two iconic areas free of gas and oil development. His legislation would ensure that is the case in perpetuity – in response to requests from the Durango City Council and with support from the La Plata County Board of Commissioners. The entire region benefits from that protection.

The Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act deserves a speedy passage through Congress. It will not likely receive such a thing, but that will be the result of political gridlock, not deficiencies in the measure. Bennet and his co-sponsor, Sen. Mark Udall, deserve credit for their work on the bill thus far. It is well worth the energy invested.

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