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Tipton talks Hermosa Creek

He expects effort to protect watershed to move quickly in the House

WASHINGTON – The House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation held a hearing on the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act (HR 1839) on Thursday. Here’s what you should know about the act and the hearing.

What is the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act?

The act, introduced to the House by Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, would designate about 108,000 acres of the San Juan National Forest as the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Area. It would extend from just above Hermosa northward into San Juan County, matching the boundaries of the watershed.

Within three years of the bill’s passage, a management plan would have to be developed for the area, based on recommendations from the Hermosa Creek River Protection Workgroup, a diverse group of constituents.

About 37,000 acres of this area, on the west side of Hermosa Creek, would be designated as federal wilderness. No road, mineral or other development would be allowed inside this area.

About 68,000 acres, mostly on the east side of the creek, would be designated as the “Hermosa Creek Special Management Area.” It would remain open to historic uses, including mountain biking, hunting, fishing, motorized recreation and selective timber harvesting.

Grazing would be allowed throughout the protection area.

Why is it important?

The area in the bill has long been recommended for a wilderness designation and is some of the most pristine in Southwest Colorado. The land surrounds Hermosa Creek, which flows into the Animas River and is an important water source for Durango and surrounding areas.

“Water is the most important thing we get from this area,” said Ed Zink, a Durango rancher and small-business owner, who attended the hearing. “And to protect the water, we have to protect the land.”

He says the water in Hermosa Creek is much better quality than in the Animas and provides dilution and better overall water quality.

“It’s easier to protect the Hermosa than to fix the Animas,” Zink said.

Without a designation, there is still a possibility that the Forest Service could develop the land sometime in the future, and Zink believes the community wants legislative reassurance that this will not happen.

How long has this bill been in the works?

Many studies since the Wilderness Act passed in 1964 have recommended a federal wilderness designation for this land, but it has never materialized. For the last six years or so, people in the area have worked on the bill to preserve the historic use of the land and give it a wilderness designation.

“A lot of various groups worked very hard to bring this together,” Tipton said in a phone interview after the hearing. “We’ve got something that is very appealing at the local level, and it should serve as a model for writing future legislation.”

Tipton is on the Public Lands and Environmental Regulation Subcommittee and chaired Thursday’s hearing because the committee chairman was unable to attend.

What happened at the hearing?

The committee heard from two witnesses about the bill: Jim Peña, associate deputy chief of the National Forest System for the U.S. Forest Service, and Scott Jones, vice president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association.

Peña expressed Forest Service’s support for the bill along with a minor technical suggestion so the Forest Service would be able to write the management plan for the Hermosa Creek area within its Land Resource and Management Plan for the San Juan National Forest, released last year, instead of separately.

Jones also spoke in favor of the bill, both for its efforts to preserve current snowmobile use of the land and a small addition, which would allow snowmobiling use to continue in the Molas Pass area that is scheduled to be closed in the recent Bureau of Land Management Resource Management Plan. The area has a long history of motorized usage and has been found unsuitable for wilderness designation in past studies. If the bill does not pass, this area will be closed to snowmobilers next season.

The area to be designated as federal wilderness hasn’t seen a high level of motorized recreation and is suitable for that designation, Jones said.

“We didn’t really talk much about the actual main parts of the bill during the hearing today because it is so well accepted,” Zink said.

Are there any other additions to the bill? What are they?

Two other small issues remain to be resolved. One would withdraw federal land from mining in the Perins Peak, Animas City Mountain, Horse Gulch and Lake Nighthorse areas. The other would be a small conveyance of 111 acres of land from the BLM to La Plata County to create a fairgrounds.

“These are small issues requiring federal legislation that would otherwise never make a hearing,” Zink said.

Local leaders from Southwest Colorado also attended the hearing, including Zink and Scott Fetchenhier, county commissioner for San Juan County.

What comes next?

The House version of the bill will be scheduled for markup by the full committee and voted on.

“I am confident that there will be no pushback on the bill from the committee,” Tipton said.

He thinks the bill will move forward quickly and said he would work to expedite the process.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., introduced the bill in the Senate in April 2013. The Senate version is co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.

It received a committee hearing in the Senate in November, but has yet to be voted on in committee. According to Philip Clelland, Bennet’s deputy press secretary, his office is working with the committee and is hopeful that a vote will be scheduled soon.

Katie Fiegenbaum is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald. Reach her at kfiegenbaum@durangoherald.com.

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