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Killing consensus

Committee, Tipton should fix last-minute meddling in Hermosa Creek bill

In a last-minute dirty trick that could wipe away six years of local consensus-building to protect the Hermosa Creek watershed, the House Committee on Natural Resources circulated a new version of the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act – this one drafted in secret without local input – two days before the committee was to take up the matter. The new language undermines key provisions that enjoyed near-universal local support, replacing them with edicts that run counter to the original measure’s intent, and could set a dangerous precedent for wilderness management nationwide. It is an unacceptable move that U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, the bill’s House sponsor, should push his colleagues to rectify.

The Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act has a rare and elusive pedigree. The measure that would protect 108,000 acres of beloved forest terrain north of Durango is the progeny of a wide-ranging group of local stakeholders from even farther-flung ideology and interests that convened to discuss how to preserve the pristine Hermosa Creek area and all its varied resources. This lengthy, thorough and painstaking process bore a consensus among wilderness advocates, water and mining interests, snowmobilers, business owners, mountain bikers, backcountry hunters, anglers and horsemen, county commissioners, city councilors and many others who worked over several years to craft recommendations for legislation.

The ensuing measure has won the hearts – and political capital – of U.S. senators and representatives from both parties and over several sessions of Congress. It has moved painstakingly slowly, but with steady, consistent, widespread support locally, regionally and federally. As close as lands protection legislation can be – or any legislation at all, these days – the Hermosa Creek bill was a slam dunk. In fact, it is just the sort of thing House Republicans claim they prefer: a locally crafted plan that represents the interests and values of bipartisan stakeholders. Despite this, the measure has moved slowly through a gridlocked Congress, and there has been little news of its progress since a subcommittee hearing in May – other than reiterations from the bill’s numbered and varied supporters that they hoped for action soon.

On Tuesday, though, everything changed when the committee announced a markup scheduled for today and distributed an updated version that would redefine the special management area so as to significantly diminish the local role in crafting a management plan for the newly protected area, ceding that power to Congress instead. Further, the new bill would allow for dam construction within the protection area, should the need someday arise – something the original measure allowed as well – but it goes on to suggest that any associated roads and transmission lines could bisect the measure’s wilderness areas. That has dramatic implications for wilderness management nationwide.

These changes are drastic. They are so profoundly at odds with the locally crafted recommendations that informed the original Hermosa Creek bill as to be antithetical. Unlike the process that yielded the original measure, the committee action took place in secret, without local buy-in and delivers a top-down edict that deeply undermines many years of hard work. Tipton must defend that local consensus and amend the bill to set right what was so inappropriately and surprisingly altered.

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