From The Denver Post (Scott Willoughby):
Coloradans, perhaps better than anyone, understand and appreciate just how special the wilderness can be. And as connoisseurs of the outdoors, they recognize there are not only wild places, but there are best wild places.
These are the places that inspire — some acknowledged and held sacred, others that have managed to remain under the radar. Others still find themselves perched in a sort of purgatory somewhere in between.
Hermosa Creek, in the San Juan National forest just north of Durango, might qualify among those in-betweeners. To Durango locals, the drainage that translates to “beautiful” creek epitomizes the Colorado outdoor experience, and they’d like to see it remain that way. But those who don’t frequent the Four Corners region may not be aware of all that this hidden gem has to offer.
Count the majority of U.S. Congress among that latter group. For more than a year now, a bipartisan bill known as the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act has languished in the legislative branch of our federal government as a consensus of local stakeholders await acknowledgment of efforts to preserve the attributes that make the place so special.
“The primary thing the bill does is it takes the basin and protects it exactly as it is today,” said Ty Churchwell, backcountry coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project. “This bill is completely supported by consensus from all stakeholders — everyone from county commissioners and town boards to sportsmen, miners, mountain bikers and motorized users. There’s nothing for them to do in D.C. but vote it forward.”
Beyond its lush landscape and idyllic scenery, the beauty of Hermosa lies in its everyman outdoors appeal. The upper creek is a focal point of Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Colorado River cutthroat reintroduction program, and the state’s largest unprotected roadless area remains a hunter’s paradise where trophy elk still die of old age. The 20-mile main trail along the creek corridor is a mountain biker’s mecca. The same trail is shared by a reasonable number of motorized users. Backpackers and horseback riders might cross the creek and make their way into a proposed 38,000-acre wilderness area a quarter mile away.
Overall, the bill would protect 108,000 acres through a series of special management areas, allowing for a variety of historic uses. It’s a one-of-a-kind proposal aimed at protecting an entire watershed as an intact, whole unit, rather than parts and pieces of it.
“When we started talking about protecting Hermosa as a river, the work group decided to look at this river basin as a whole ecological unit instead of just a river corridor,” Churchwell said. “That means that the boundaries for this protection are the ridge lines. Everything that flows out of this basin is included in the protection — the whole watershed. It’s the first time that we are aware of that there has ever been a protection bill that encompasses an entire watershed.”
As a result, a coalition of sportsmen’s conservation groups, guides and outfitters, fly shops and retailers, have united with local government entities in support of protecting this public land deemed vital to America’s hunting and fishing traditions and values.
“Hermosa Creek and the backcountry lands that flank its banks are among the special places that hunters and anglers in Colorado and across the region see as crucial to protect for the good of sportsmen, the environment and the sustainability of area businesses,” said John Gale, the Colorado-based manager of the National Wildlife Federation’s sportsmen’s outreach.
Should a portion of the drainage receive federal Wilderness designation this year, it will mark the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964 as only the second wilderness area recognized by Congress since 2009.