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Federal ‘land grab’ or conservation? U.S. senator visits Dolores River to weigh in

Opponents fear a national monument will curtail access and draw crowds; supporters say it will help manage impacts
The Dolores River winds through the West End of Montrose County upstream of Bedrock and the Paradox Valley. A proposal for a new national monument would increase protections for 400,000 acres around the Dolores River in Montrose and Mesa counties. (Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun/EcoFlight)

NUCLA – The call for a national monument designation around the Dolores River has inflamed passions in Southwest Colorado, with some residents saying the increased protections on federal land could limit mining and agriculture while drawing more recreating visitors to the region.

Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet spent several days in the area earlier this month, visiting with supporters and opponents of the national monument proposal. His tour culminated in a 500-person meeting in the new K-12 school in Nucla.

The Democratic senator – whose Republican rival collected more than twice as many votes in Mesa and Montrose counties in 2016 – got an earful on the warm Sunday. His colleague in D.C., Sen. John Hickenlooper, got an equally impassioned dose of public sentiment around the national monument proposal in April.

“For those of us who think democracy is dead, maybe they should show up in Naturita, Colorado,” Bennet said as he kicked off the meeting in the freshly built gymnasium June 9. “The disagreements we have create the wisdom of our democracy.”

The democracy in action in the West End of Montrose County swirls around a proposal to protect about 400,000 acres around the Dolores River in Mesa and Montrose counties with a national monument designation from President Joe Biden. As the region’s hardscrabble communities toil through a sustained economic downturn spurred by the shift away from extractive industries, the call for increased conservation – and possibly more federal regulations – around the trickling river and its remote canyons has stirred vehement opposition.

Opponents in black “Halt The Dolores National Monument” T-shirts waved signs that read “Your offseason playground is our full-time home,” “Current fed deficit $2 trillion,” and “This is not conservation. This is a land grab.” Outnumbered supporters wore blue “Protect The Dolores Canyons National Monument” T-shirts.

Sen. Michael Bennet hosted a meeting June 9 at the new K-12 school in Nucla to hear local input on a proposal to designate a national monument around the Dolores River in Mesa and Montrose counties. (Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun)

They drew tickets in a lottery for their chance to speak and many leaned into fiery rhetoric as a digital clock on the gym stage counted down from three minutes. Thunderous applause followed most of the opponents’ perspectives.

The monument opponents worried that a national monument designation would curtail grazing leases and water rights. The increased layer of federal protections could add more bureaucratic hurdles to motorized access and reduce agricultural property values, they said. As the U.S. plans for reduced reliance on foreign energy, many feared a national monument could limit future uranium mining in the mineral-rich region. All the opponents expressed some level of concern that a national monument would overwhelm the region with visitors.

Russ Andrews of Carbondale, one of six Republicans vying to fill U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert’s seat as she runs to represent the state’s 4th Congressional District on the Front Range, said Western Slope residents feel underrepresented by politicians in Washington and “overwhelmed by the changes” coming from federal lawmakers. Andrews drew applause when he said federal lawmakers were coming for their plastic bags, light bulbs, gas stoves, gas trucks and “half the water in my toilet.”

“To me this seems like a land grab, a water grab, an energy grab and a grazing-rights grab,” Andrews said.

Supporters in the spring of 2023 floated a proposal to get President Joe Biden to use the 1906 Antiquities Act to increase protection for about 400,000 acres of federal land in Mesa and Montrose counties along the Dolores River. (Presidents have used the Antiquities Act to create 163 national monuments and debate over the executive power in the venerable legislation has picked up in recent years as President Barack Obama designated 29 new monuments and expanded five others, President Donald Trump drastically reduced the size of Utah’s Obama-created Bears Ears and Biden created five new monuments and enlarged four, including restoring Bears Ears to its original size.

The proposal to designate a national monument around Dolores River in Mesa and Montrose counties would increase protection of about 400,000 federally managed acres. (Handout)

The coalition supporting the Dolores River national monument argues the designation would protect natural resources in the ecologically diverse canyons around the Dolores River for future generations while allowing for existing mining, agriculture and recreational access. The monument proposal is meant to complement 2022 legislation – which is supported by Bennet, Hickenlooper and Boebert – that proposes a national conservation area on 68,000 acres around the Dolores River in Dolores, Montezuma and San Miguel counties.

The effort to protect land around the limestone and sandstone canyons of the Dolores River dates back 50 years and supporters argue a national monument would allow management that mitigates impacts from increasing tourist traffic to the region.

“I think we have an opportunity to diversify our economy through all these things and come up with a proposal that takes all of these uses into account so that everyone in these rural communities can prosper,” said Natalie Binder, whose Camp V campground at a former mining compound has hosted hundreds of events and thousands of visitors in Naturita.

Opposition in Mesa and Montrose counties

Before the meeting, Bennet joined a small group of locals for flights over the Dolores and San Miguel watersheds, provided by EcoFlight, a group that offers flights over Western landscapes.

The flight revealed spiderwebs of miner-built roads in the two river drainages. Aerial perspectives showed mountainsides of blue-hued bentonite clay, which miners say indicates uranium ore just below the surface. The landscape is dotted with lush ranches.

The Dolores River is a mere trickle this spring, as upstream water interests use every drop of snowmelt in the river basin. And it’s “unlikely” any water will spill from McPhee Reservoir into the Dolores, according to a May 13 forecast from the Dolores River Conservancy District. That’s one of the biggest challenges facing the Dolores River, where owners of venerable water rights leave the river barely wet in most years. Last year, the river roared to life with record flows reaching nearly 1,000% of normal after historic snowfall in the basin.

“It’s important to recognize the utility of the landscape. West End residents have benefited from the multiuse philosophy of public lands for a hundred years,” Montrose County Commissioner Sue Hansen said.

The Montrose County commissioners in March unanimously opposed the national monument proposal, expressing concern that the county’s West End could lose future mining opportunities with increased federal protections.

“I think everybody in this room wants to protect something and they are not all the same things,” Hansen said.

Mesa County’s commissioners also oppose the national monument. A Mesa County survey of 1,272 residents in April showed 60% of respondents oppose the monument plan. The annual State of the Rockies survey estimated 92% of Colorado voters support protecting lands around the Dolores River. Mesa County is gathering additional input from residents to help identify conservation and use issues areas around the river.

The Dolores River rolls through the community of Gateway in Mesa County. The Gateway Canyons Resort on Colorado Highway 141 is the western mouth of the Unaweep Canyon on the left. (Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun/EcoFlight)

Mesa County Commissioner Cody Davis told Bennet that some existing protections are adequate right now and the county is working to identify areas where additional protection may be warranted.

“I hope to, at some point, come together and really put together something much narrower than what has been proposed,” Davis said.

Finding common ground

Western Slope rancher Janie Van Winkle told Bennet that the agriculture community was willing to work out compromises that would protect grazing rights while looking at some form of increased land protection around the river. She said she’d like to see monument supporters work on compromises as well.

“At this point, it feels like they have dug their heels in and I know some on our side have dug their heels in as well,” said Van Winkle, who delivered the commencement address for 18 Nucla High graduates in 2023. When she graduated from the Nucla school decades ago, the West End of Montrose County was booming with uranium mining and there were 81 graduates.

“We’ve worked hard with outdoor recreation in numerous places in western Colorado to find solutions that work for all of us, not just ranchers, miners, outdoor recreation interests but all our people,” Van Winkle said. “I truly believe we can find some common ground, but it will take time and compromise to find the right answer for the landscapes and the people that live there.”

Miners say the blue-green hue in the canyons around the Dolores River indicate uranium ore is near the surface. (Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun/EcoFlight)

Scott Braden, whose Colorado Wildlands group is organizing the national monument campaign, said supporters are happy to compromise. The coalition of conservation groups has gathered support from 200 businesses, an online petition with signatures from more than 100,000 people and a resolution backing the monument proposal from the city of Grand Junction. The group is ready to adjust the map and a monument will not impact existing mining claims as well as outfitting and grazing permits. A new monument would prevent new oil and gas leases and new mining claims inside the boundary.

“I hope that members of our coalition can earn the chance to change your view and surprise you about the orientation of our heels because I do not think they are dug in,” he said.

The table is set, Braden said, “where we can come together as the coalition with ranchers and other stakeholders represented here in a spirit of compromise and negotiation to come to an agreement that hopefully we can all feel pretty good about. So I hope to surprise you.”

In many ways, the national monument controversy on the Western Slope is about more than a national monument. It’s about rural communities feeling left behind in an economy and culture that leans toward urban voters. It’s about balancing the will of 330 million American owners of public lands with the concerns of rural communities like Montrose and Mesa counties, where 70% of the land is publicly owned.

‘We don’t want this place to look like Moab’

Overcoming the deep-seated challenges in Colorado’s growing rural-urban divide is about more than conserving land. Bennet, in an interview with The Colorado Sun, said disagreements are essential but the vitriol in public discussion right now is fueled by social media that skews facts and overshadows valid local concerns with contentious national political squabbling.

“I think social media has become a poison in our civic discourse, and in our political discourse,” he said. “In my mind that’s a way of disempowering local people. If you are spinning conspiracy theories that have nothing to do with the local people whose livelihoods really are going to be affected by the decisions that we make – who are actually going to be affected by the decisions you make – and you are reaching out into the vortex of the social media world to make your case, I think that’s a problem for civic debate and discussion. So that, I think, is what we’re grappling with here.”

Former state Rep. Ron Hanks, another Republican campaigning for the 3rd Congressional District seat in the U.S. House who showed up to stump at Bennet’s Nucla meeting, said a monument would not make the Dolores River region more pristine. Hanks joined several other opponents in fretting that the West End of Montrose County could turn into Moab just across the border in Utah, where overcrowding has become an issue.

The 5,300-resident Moab – a former uranium mining town turned tourist mecca serving as a gateway to both Arches and Canyonlands national parks – has seen annual visitation climb beyond 3 million in recent years. The overcrowding and congestion prodded the Bureau of Land Management in 2023 to prohibit motorized travel on more than 300 miles of formerly motorized trails west of Moab. Arches National Park, which saw visitation climb 90% in the decade leading to 2021, installed a timed reservation system for summertime vehicle entry in 2022.

“We don’t want this place to look like Moab. This area will stay better protected, better preserved and enjoyed by more people if it is not a monument,” Hanks said. “Nobody locks up land better than the federal government.”

Jim Ramey with the Wilderness Society said monument designation for the Dolores River canyons is “hugely important for large landscape conservation connecting high alpine mountains with desert landscapes.”

Curtis McCrackin, a business owner from Delta County who also is campaigning for the Republican nomination to the 3rd Congressional District seat, said “our voice isn’t heard” and said the federal Antiquities Act should be repealed, calling it “a 1906 law that shouldn’t exist any more.”

McCrackin, who has built construction and real estate businesses and lives in Cedaredge, said multigenerational families in the Dolores River drainage should be included in any management decisions for the region.

“There is no way the federal government can take that over and do a better job than the people who have been here forever,” he said.

After the three 3rd District candidates spoke, Bennet said he was “glad I was able to bring you all together” for the meeting, drawing laughter from the crowded gym.

Bennet strolled the aisle in the middle of the standing-room-only gym for the entire two-hour meeting. When too many supporters spoke in a row, he selected a few opponents to speak.

“This is what freedom looks like,” he said. “This has been enormously valuable to me.”

He did not discuss where he might land on the national monument proposal, but he offered a couple perspectives.

“Maybe one thing we can all agree on … I do not want this place to become Moab,” he said. “I’m worried that if we don’t do anything, then we run the risk that that’s what it’s going to look like.”

He said he recognizes how rural communities are feeling overlooked in a national economy that continues to direct gains toward “the very top” and that disparity “is something we need to address.”

“I would never support a national monument that affects grazing leases. I would never support one that affects people’s water,” Bennet said, asking for more conversations around “a way to do our job together and try to establish a vision” for the region’s public lands as well as discussions around “what it would be like if we just left things as they are.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.