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House passes Hermosa Creek Watershed Act

Senate, Obama yet to approve
The U.S. House on Thursday passed the defense bill, which has the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act attached to it. The bill next will be voted on by the U.S. Senate.

The Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act cleared another major hurdle Thursday when the U.S. House passed the defense bill, to which the measure is attached.

The House passed the defense bill, formally called the National Defense Authorization Act, by a 300-119 vote.

It will head next week to the Senate, which is expected to pass it even though a couple of senators could delay it with objections. A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a co-sponsor of the Hermosa act, said the defense bill is expected to pass by the end of next week.

“We are very optimistic,” Bennet spokesman Philip Clelland, based in Washington, D.C., said in a phone interview Thursday. “Now that we’ve seen it move through the House, with the help of congressman Cortez Scott Tipton, we are fairly optimistic that we’re going to get this done next week.”

After passing the Senate, the $585 billion defense bill would go to the president’s desk to be signed into law.

“The Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act is well on the way to becoming law,” Tipton said in a news release Thursday after the vote. “This is a victory for the people of Southwest Colorado, who worked together to provide momentum for this effort to ensure that the region remains protected and that multiple use of the land continues for future generations.”

Senate Republicans are divided over the inclusion in the defense bill of unrelated provisions expanding wilderness areas in the West. As well as Hermosa Creek, the provisions include transferring management of a 140-square-mile national preserve in northern New Mexico to the National Park Service and making a land swap in Arizona that would clear the way for a much-disputed copper mine.

Unrelated legislation is commonly added to bills, particularly at the end of a legislative session, Clelland said.

A defense authorization has been enacted for 52 consecutive years, a record lawmakers cite as a sign of bipartisan support for the military and the sacrifices made by American forces worldwide.

Several local proponents of the bill sent a joint news release Thursday afternoon celebrating the House’s action.

“This bill represents a true balance between all the diverse uses of the Hermosa Creek watershed,” Steve Fearn, with the Southwest Colorado Water Conservation District, said in the release. “Congressman Tipton and Sen. Bennet deserve our thanks for honoring the community consensus.”

In a phone interview, the Wilderness Society’s Jeff Widen said he was “beyond excited.”

“There’s been a lot of times we thought it was more likely not to happen,” Widen said. “To see it move through the House ... is astounding.”

The Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act would grant protective status to more than 100,000 acres north-northwest of Durango.

The act would create 37,236 acres of wilderness in the western portion. There would be a 68,289-acre “special management area,” with the northern chunk to be left as is, dirt roads and all. The eastern part, 43,000 acres, would be protected as a roadless area, but it still would allow mountain bikes and motorcycles.

The Hermosa Creek Workgroup met for nearly two years from 2008 to 2010 and painstakingly crafted a plan that included input from multiple user groups, including recreationists, snowmobilers, property owners, water officials, environmentalists, anglers and hunters. After that, Sens. Bennet and Mark Udall, along with Rep. Tipton, R-Cortez, came up with legislation and introduced it into Congress in 2012.

Proponents have been patient through the process and have seen a number of false starts and disappointments. The House changed some language in the act when Tipton reintroduced it in September, upsetting several workgroup members. But a Senate committee later approved the Hermosa Creek act with language that more faithfully follows the original script.

johnp@durangoherald.com. The Associated Press and Bloomberg News were used in this report.

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