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Sen. Bennet to release draft legislation for National Conservation Area in Dolores River canyon

Draft legislation is being developed by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s office for a National Conservation Area in the Lower Dolores River Canyon in Dolores and San Miguel counties. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Proposed land designation would be in Dolores and San Miguel counties, downstream of McPhee Reservoir

Discussion of draft legislation for a proposed National Conservation Area on the Lower Dolores River will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 16 in the Montezuma County Commission room.

The public is invited to attend. It also will be streamed on the county YouTube channel and Zoom.

The anticipated release of the NCA draft bill from U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s office will be discussed and reviewed by county officials during the workshop.

The proposed special land designation would be in Dolores and San Miguel counties on Bureau of Land Management land downstream of McPhee Reservoir.

Details about the plan and draft legislation, including the area’s boundaries, have not been released to the public.

The workshop will be attended by Dolores and San Miguel county commissioners, John Whitney with Bennet’s office, Amber Clark with the Dolores River Boating Advocates, Jeff Widen with the Wilderness Society and Al Heaton, a local ranching advocate.

Montezuma County Commissioner Jim Candelaria said the county is looking forward to reviewing the language of the draft bill, providing input and participating in the negotiation process.

The proposed NCA does not include Montezuma County, but because it is downstream of McPhee Reservoir, there is a local interest, he said.

“Protecting our water source in McPhee is extremely critical for our area,” Candelaria said. “We want to understand the language of the bill and see if it would impact our county.”

The bill has not been introduced in Congress. When it is introduced, it will be available for broad public review.

The Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners has sought more involvement at the draft level because the NCA would be adjacent to the county and downstream of McPhee Reservoir. The board has not been privy to negotiations so far, county officials said.

Whitney said the Dolores River NCA draft legislation includes an advisory committee that would have stakeholders, including a representative from Dolores and San Miguel counties.

Previous Montezuma County commissioners backed away from negotiations about a draft version of Bennet’s bill released in 2015 and dropped in 2017.

NCAs are created by Congress and offer customized management of federal land based on community interests to protect certain values. They include a management plan that goes through the National Environmental Protection Act process with public comment.

A lower Dolores River NCA would be on BLM land and applies to public lands only.

The concept of an NCA to add protection for the scenic Dolores River canyons downstream of McPhee Reservoir has been around for many years.

Bennet released draft legislation for it in 2015 after several years of studying the idea.

It proposed an NCA along the Dolores River from Bradfield Bridge below McPhee Dam to Bedrock and included a wilderness area for Slickrock Canyon in Montrose County.

The 2015 bill would have prevented new mining development, and did not establish a new water right. Existing uses were retained.

According to the 2015 draft bill, in exchange for the Dolores River NCA and wilderness area in Slickrock Canyon, the BLM would drop a section of the Dolores River’s eligibility status for federal designation as a National Wild and Scenic River designation.

A designation of wild and scenic rivers can include a federally reserved water right.

At the time, Montezuma County commissioners decided not to support the 2015 draft NCA bill, citing concerns about potential impacts to McPhee Reservoir from new federal regulations downstream. The draft 2015 bill was not introduced.

Five years later, the Dolores River NCA concept has been revived in a smaller form that includes areas in Dolores and San Miguel counties only where officials have expressed continued interest in the NCA idea.

jmimiaga@the-journal.com

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