It’s been a long time coming, these extraordinary bipartisan Senate and House bills that propose additional protections for the Lower Dolores River corridor. Equally impressive are stakeholders who spent 14 years, pulling together this legislation.
At their first meeting during a blizzard in December 2008, a quick glance around the room could have produced skeptics. People from wildly diverse backgrounds sized up each other. Glared and made assumptions. County commissioners, ranchers, reps from water districts, Ute Mountain Ute members, recreationists, landowners, conservationists – some with boating habits – got through the initial awkwardness.
At the time, though, you could almost smell the fear. Who would try to take water from whom?
Instead, stakeholders heard each other’s concerns and learned they mostly wanted the same thing. A river that supports recreation and agriculture.
This was a starting point, along with an unconditional love of the area. Good science would be their guide. They would become the Lower Dolores Working Group.
Dolores County Commissioner Julie Kibel said: “By the time we got to the hard questions, we had built that bond. And that mutual respect.”
The group came to embody the ability – rare and elusive – to put aside differences for a mutual goal. “My approach has always been to listen to people,” said Amber Clark, executive director of Dolores River Boating Advocates.
The journey was winding. Players dropped out, then back in, then out again. The group had side turns and outside loops. A pressing priority – not addressed by legislation – was the right amount of water released to support native fish spawning. Fish couldn’t wait for legislation to be dialed in. The timing was critical, and led to monitoring and recommendations.
And they kept returning to that river love. Who wouldn’t swoon inside the canyon’s desert-patina streaked red walls, protecting mighty old-growth ponderosas? The river shape-shifts. It’s an enchanting place with desert bighorn sheep, bear and river otters, and a vitality that stays with people. The Dolores touches each community it runs through.
Group members built their best legislative tool for the job. Community values, such as cultural and natural resources, native fish, boating and agricultural interests, had to be included. From the early days, Sen. Michael Bennet and his staff were committed. After much give and take, the group found language to protect the Lower Dolores River corridor and keep it under a kind of local control with an advisory committee on the management plan. The end result is the expertly crafted, homegrown Dolores River National Conservation Area and Special Management Act. Legislation protects more than 68,000 acres of public land along a coveted 75-mile stretch of the river canyon below McPhee Dam in Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties. The area includes the spectacular Ponderosa Gorge.
The bills ensure traditional uses – grazing, uranium mining and other mineral extraction. Motorized-vehicle use will continue. The bills prohibit new mining and oil and gas permits, but protect existing rights and leases. It also bans new large dams, new roads and commercial logging.
John Whitney, a regional director with Bennet’s office, said, “I can’t think of a place where people worked harder to get a bill done.”
Whitney remembered the group eating lunch alongside the river, making breakthroughs. “No way better to do that than to spend a day in the canyon,” he said.
The group evolved into a community. Jeff Widen of The Wilderness Society said “it was a true partnership.” Kibel added, “We count each other as friends.”
We in the Southwest are better off for group members’ diligence in protecting the sublime, delicate Lower Dolores River corridor.
Fourteen years of discussions and compromise, missed dinners and homework with kids to get here.