Following A Decade of Collaboration with Southwest Colorado Leaders, Bill Would Designate a Part of the Dolores River Canyon as a National Conservation Area
Denver –– Today, Colorado U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper unveiled legislation to designate a portion of the Dolores River Canyon within Dolores, Montezuma, and San Miguel Counties as a National Conservation Area (NCA) and Special Management Area (SMA). This bill would protect over 68,000 acres of public lands in Colorado. In September 2021, Bennet invited Coloradans to share suggestions to improve the bill during a 45-day comment period.
“For years, I’ve worked with leaders in Southwest Colorado to develop this legislation to protect a portion of the Dolores River Canyon, and I’m delighted to introduce a bill that reflects bipartisan interests across the region to protect landscapes within Dolores, Montezuma, and San Miguel counties,” said Bennet. “This legislation represents over a decade of collaboration and compromise by a diverse coalition that worked together to find the best way forward for the Dolores River canyon. Let’s get this done to support public land conservation, agriculture, recreation, and local economies in Colorado.”
“This bill will protect wildlife, conserve our public lands, and support outdoor recreation in Southwest Colorado while protecting water and agriculture,” said Hickenlooper, a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “For over a decade, communities have worked to protect the Dolores River and Senator Bennet has transformed their vision into legislation with bipartisan support.”
The Dolores River National Conservation Area Act follows nearly two decades of local discussion and collaboration on the Dolores River and twelve years of work to find a legislative compromise. In 2004, the Dolores River Dialogue began as a forum for all stakeholders to discuss their perspective on Dolores River management. In 2008, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management requested that the Dolores River Dialogue convene a broad-based community group, which became the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group to study pressing management issues in the Dolores River corridor from McPhee to Bedrock, including the possibility of a Wild and Scenic River designation. Through consensus agreement, the working group decided to explore a NCA designation and appointed a Legislative Subcommittee, which included counties, water managers, conservation groups, landowners, recreationists, energy companies, and staff from federal elected officials’ offices, to draft a legislative proposal for further vetting. Bennet has worked with the coalition on this issue for over a decade, and this bill is the culmination of those conversations and collaboration.
This legislation comes at the specific request of Dolores, Montezuma, and San Miguel Counties as well as the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Southwest Colorado. The bill is also supported by a coalition of conservation groups and the grazing permit holders in the Dolores River Canyon. It enshrines a compromise reached by all those entities that removes the segment of the Dolores River covered by the legislation from consideration as a Wild and Scenic River and protects the natural, recreational, agricultural and other current uses of the Dolores River Canyon as a National Conservation Area.
“Here in Colorado, we are preserving and protecting our world-class outdoors, supporting our thriving agriculture industry, and expanding opportunities for outdoor recreation, and legislation to protect our treasured land in the Lower Dolores River canyon is a great step towards achieving these goals,” said Governor Jared Polis.
“Our Dolores Project allocations are the centerpiece of our Colorado Water Rights Settlement. The Dolores Project provides clean drinking water for our people and the businesses that sustain our economy including our 7,700 acre Tribal Farm, cow herd and corn mill. The NCA legislation protects our Dolores Project allocations by legislatively resolving the conflicting authorities of the Bureau of Reclamation to manage McPhee Reservoir allocations and Forest Service/BLM authorities below McPhee Reservoir. The legislation also protects Tribal cultural rights and practices in the NCA, and involves the Tribe in collaborative efforts to manage for sensitive native fish below McPhee, another key to protecting our Dolores Project allocations,” said Manuel Heart, Chairman, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
“Dolores County has worked diligently on the NCA legislation since its beginning as the Lower Dolores River Working Group. Through the years of collaboration of many varied interest groups we have a working product that shows how a bipartisan group of stakeholders can come together to provide local support and legislative efforts to protect a remarkable and adored landscape. This protection will keep the Dolores River that flows through Montezuma, Dolores, San Miguel Counties and has increased farming techniques for the Ute Mountain Utes as a life sustaining and economic resource. Knowing that the Dolores River with all of its outstanding remarkable values, natural resources and existing uses will be under local legislative control for years to come is a worthwhile feat. We are so grateful to all we have respectfully worked side by side with over the years and especially to Senator Bennet’s office and his aide John Whitney for their continued support in this process,” said Julie Kibel, Dolores County Commissioner.
“San Miguel County has been actively participating for over a decade in regional stakeholder discussions to determine the best locally driven long-term management for the Dolores River. Collaboration with Dolores and Montezuma Counties and the Ute Mountain Ute's has been one of the most rewarding projects for me as an elected official. The Dolores County NCA is a locally built and broadly supported proposal that protects the natural resources and existing use. We are grateful to Senator Bennet for working with us over the years and supporting our efforts to ensure the protection of this endangered landscape and enshrining local participation in ongoing management,” said Hilary Cooper, San Miguel County Commissioner.
“The proposal is the result of a long-standing collaborative effort to protect the Dolores River and the interests of the various stakeholders that it serves, including water users, agricultural entities, local governments, OHV users, conservation groups, and recreationalists. ln crafting the NCA proposal, Montezuma County, San Miguel County, Dolores County, and other partners sought to address a myriad of concerns, including those arising from the finding that the Dolores River is ‘suitable’ for designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act,” said the Montezuma County Commissioners. “lt is the position of Montezuma County that designating the Dolores River as Wild and Scenic would result in significant consequences for water users and other groups seeking to access natural resources along the river corridor. By supporting the proposal for an NCA, it is Montezuma County's intent to ensure that portions of the lower Dolores River that run through Montezuma, Dolores, and San Miguel counties will not be designated as Wild and Scenic, and it is our position that the NCA proposal sets forth an acceptable compromise between the various stakeholders interested in utilizing water and land resources in and along the Dolores River.”
“I have worked continuously on this proposal since 2008. I believe local participation in the management of the area will provide better benefits for the native fish, scenic area, recreation, permitted federal land uses, private land values and water rights than a wild and scenic designation. I have ranching and farming operations in all three counties involved. I appreciate your continued support and hope this can go forward in the bipartisan way we have shown is possible with the diverse local groups that put this proposal together,” said Al Heaton, local rancher that operates in the proposed NCA.
“Senator Bennet has been a collaborative, longtime champion for protecting the Dolores River Canyon region and we’re thrilled he has introduced The Dolores River National Conservation Area bill. This bill respects the wisdom of southwest Colorado’s diverse interests and years of hard won collaboration to protect this region. Farmers, ranchers, boaters, motorized recreationists, water and energy interests, landowners, and conservation organizations all recognize the need to protect the Dolores River Canyon region and have collaborated for more than a decade to align on how best to do it. We’re excited to support the Senator’s commitment to protect these important natural and cultural resources for generations to come,” said Amber Clark, Executive Director, Dolores River Boating Advocates.
“A rapidly changing climate highlights the urgent need for better protections for some of our wildest public lands in the state. The lands in this legislation are a key piece of the puzzle in connecting important wildlife corridors and protecting the biodiversity in the region. Years of science-based collaboration helped move these efforts forward and we are excited that these lands near the Dolores are getting the attention they deserve,” said Jeff Widen, The Wilderness Society.