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‘Protect entire Dolores River Canyon Country as national monument’

As our rivers begin to recede, it is time to look back on the incredible spring runoff season. An above-average snowpack ushered in high flows with ample opportunities for river recreation and brought invaluable ecological benefits. One river in particular was especially in need of a reprieve – the Dolores River here in southwest Colorado.

With its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains, the Dolores flows 241 miles before joining the Colorado River in Utah. Along the way, McPhee Reservoir captures the majority of the flows that are sent to another watershed for agriculture and other human needs. However, the past three years have been exceedingly dry, with the Dolores downstream of the dam flowing at barely a trickle, and other water users, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, only receiving a small portion of their allotted water supply. This year was a stark contrast: The Dolores had 55 days of boatable flows, which provided vibrant recreational opportunities, ecological benefits and full allotments for farmers.

The Dolores supports some of the highest biological diversity in the state and is among our most treasured landscapes, with towering sandstone canyons and old-growth Ponderosa pine forests. Wildlife, birds and fish rely on the interconnected landscape and river for sustenance throughout the year, and undeveloped public lands spanning from high in the mountains down to the river provide critical habitat. However, despite flowing through some of the last intact wildlands in Colorado, the Dolores River and surrounding canyon country remain unprotected.

My business and community rely on conserved and healthy landscapes, as protected lands help create jobs and economic growth. From the early 1970s to the early 2010s, western rural counties with the highest share of protected federal lands on average had faster population, employment and personal income growth – two times faster or more – than adjacent communities with the lowest share of protected federal lands.

The Dolores River in particular desperately needs increased protections. The river itself, but also the incredible lands it carves through, which is the main draw for recreators. The question of water in the river is a regional issue that requires looking at water rights within local communities – one that cannot be solved by legislation or decision makers alone. Nevertheless, we can – and should – advocate for our elected officials to protect the public lands surrounding the river.

There is a new community-led movement for the president to designate the Dolores River Canyon Country as a national monument, which would open new avenues for local economic growth, increase resources to thoughtfully manage these wildlands and deepen the quality of life in our community. We believe that a landscape-scale national monument would open the door to better management and conservation, and provide additional resources to land managers to accommodate for sustainable recreation and continued access.

Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper are leading the way to protect the Dolores River Canyon County, and have introduced legislation to designate a National Conservation Area to protect nearly 68,000 acres of the river corridor through Ponderosa Gorge. We are very supportive of this legislation and urge the senators to do anything they can to ensure it becomes law. However, the legislation does not encompass the entirety of the watershed, and politics in Congress are so uncertain that there may not be a viable path for the bill to become law.

It is up to all of us who live in the Southwest to stand up for our treasured landscapes and rivers, to make sure they are well-managed and conserved for future generations. Please, join me in urging them to protect the entire Dolores River Canyon Country – from McPhee Dam all the way up to the Utah state line – as our next national monument.

Ashleigh Tucker is one of the owners of 4Corners Riversports in Durango.