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U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet releases draft bill to protect Lower Dolores River

A draft bill released by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s office proposes to create a National Conservation Area on the Lower Dolores River. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
National Conservation Area would be in Dolores and San Miguel counties

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, has released a draft bill that would create a National Conservation Area and special management area on the Dolores River Canyon in Southwest Colorado.

According to the draft legislation released Monday, the Dolores River NCA would encompass 45,455 acres on Bureau of Land Management land in the portion of the river canyon that goes through Dolores and San Miguel counties.

The bill includes a Dolores River Special Management Area on 10,828 acres of San Juan National Forest land.

The draft bill also proposes to release portions of the Dolores River and certain tributaries from potential designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Bennet, county commissioners and conservationists lauded the local and bipartisan participation in the discussion process.

“After years of collaboration with local leaders in Southwest Colorado, I’m pleased to announce this proposal to protect a portion of the Dolores River Canyon,” Bennet said in the news release. “This bill was requested by a bipartisan coalition of interests, including Dolores and San Miguel counties, who share an interest in protecting the area’s recreational and agricultural value as well as its natural resources.”

Bennet’s office stated the legislation follows two decades of local discussion and collaboration on the Dolores River and comes at the request of Dolores and San Miguel counties in Southwest Colorado. Bennet invited input to improve the bill during an initial 45-day comment period.

The deadline to submit input is Oct. 28, 2021. The form and additional information about the discussion draft and an NCA map are available on Bennet’s website at www.bennet.senate.gov.

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

There will be a 45-day public comment period. After reviewing the input, Bennet intends to introduce the legislation in the Senate.

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.

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

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

The Dolores County Commission released this statement about the proposed Dolores River NCA:

“ The Dolores River is a beautiful geological area full of scenery, wildlife, natural resources, recreation, whitewater boating, cultural, archaeological, important watershed and scientific resources that need conserved and protected. We are grateful to San Miguel County for their continued support and efforts in the collaboration of this two-county bill,” according to the Dolores County Commission.

The San Miguel County Commission, likewise, offered a statement that supported protections for the Dolores River watershed:

“ As we collectively face the challenge of drought and reduced water, we must work together to protect the shared Dolores watershed and local economies that depend on it,” said Hilary Cooper, San Miguel County commissioner. “We will continue to support this bill, and we look forward to working with our regional colleagues to address the challenges we face together.”

The Dolores River Boating Advocates touted the Dolores River’s conservation and recreation values:

"We are excited for this important step toward protecting conservation and recreation values of the Dolores River corridor,“ said Amber Clark, executive director of the Dolores River Boating Advocates. “There is still a lot of work to do moving forward, and to that end, we look forward to continuing to collaborate with other stakeholders and supporting this proposed legislation as it moves toward introduction and passage.”

Local rancher Al Heaton said the discussion process took shape with the government-to-government roundtable that started in 2005 to discuss ranchers’ concerns with a Wild and Scenic River designation for the Dolores River. Heaton considered such a designation to be overreaching.

“After those conversations, the Dolores River Working Group decided we could do something to protect the Dolores River Canyon and keep management of the Dolores River in local control,” Heaton said in the news release. “We wanted a designation that was more balanced than Wild and Scenic that would protect private property, agriculture, all existing rights, including water rights, energy development, livestock grazing and private property access.”

Heaton said the process helped stakeholders learn “better management of our water releases from McPhee Reservoir, in order to provide better management of the fish in the Dolores River so that they do not end up as endangered and cause us to lose local control of water use in our community. We feel this proposed NCA legislation is the best way forward to accomplish these needs,” Heaton said.

In an interview with The Journal on Sept. 1, Montezuma County Commissioner Jim Candelaria said the county wanted to review the language of the draft bill, provide input and participate 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 recent Dolores River NCA draft legislation includes forming the Dolores River National Conservation Area Advisory Council.

The 11-member advisory committee will include representatives from Dolores and San Miguel counties and the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. Advisory members will be chosen from area counties, including Montezuma and Montrose counties.

jmimiaga@the-journal.com