Tears, laughter, hugs and more than a few looks of disbelief were the norm at the celebration for the passage of the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act.
Between 300 and 400 people crowded the Powerhouse Science Center on Friday to greet Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and mark the success of legislation 50 years in the making.
With President Barack Obama’s signature later Friday afternoon, the day could not have ended on a more perfect note as the act became law.
“Today’s celebration is a direct result of the hard work and dedication of the members of this community,” Bennet said. “Our offices may have introduced this bill in Congress, but it was really the people we represent in Southwest Colorado who wrote every bit of it.”
Ed Zink went to his first meeting on protecting Hermosa Creek in 1969.
“The theme has always been the same,” he said, “Hermosa is special, water is our most valuable resource, how do we handle industry and recreation while keeping it the way it is?”
The bill is the result of more than 20 work-group meetings and countless smaller meetings since April 2008. Conservationists, mining companies, Durango Mountain Resort executives, outfitters, snowmobilers, ranchers with grazing permits, mountain bikers, representatives of local and federal governments and other stakeholders all had a say in determining how the Hermosa area should be managed, and a work group of 10 held another 20 to 30 meetings to draft the legislation.
“We had one ground rule,” facilitator Marsha Porter-Norton said. “We agreed to respect each other’s values, and no one value was raised above another.”
And then it had to go through the legislative process.
“This is how legislation should be created, from the ground up instead of the top down,” Bennet said. “You demonstrated that because people have conflicting views, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong, and people can compromise and achieve results they can all agree on. This was democracy in action, and I wish we could ship it to Washington.”
The act hit a hiccup in September, when the leadership of the House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Committee made major changes to the provisions in the bill, including putting mining and economic development on an equal footing with maintaining water quality in a Special Management Area of the watershed. Tipton worked with House leadership to return it to the original language, and Bennet maintained the integrity in the Senate.
San Juan County had a vested interest in the bill because it also included a provision to keep the Molas Lake area open for snowmobilers, an important sector of Silverton’s winter economy.
“The Bureau of Land Management wanted to close half the loop snowmobilers use,” San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier said. “I asked what it would take to keep it open, and they said, ‘An act of Congress.’ I Googled the probability of a bill going through Congress, and it was 2 percent, so we should all be proud to be standing here today.”
La Plata County Commission Chairwoman Julie Westendorff said her assistant gave her the most succinct way to say what the passage means.
“She said I can say it in one word, ‘Yahoo!’” Westendorff said. “Thanks to all of you who worked on something that matters to all of us.”