Tweaked Hermosa Creek Bill Raises Conservationists’ Ire — the Watch

September 24, 2014


From the Watch (Samantha Wright):

For over a year, the proposed Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act has been celebrated as a beacon of bipartisanship, collaboration and consensus in an otherwise bleak landscape of mired Wilderness legislation.

The bill, HR 1839, has enjoyed strong bipartisan and bicameral support from its Colorado sponsors, Rep. Scott Tipton and Sen. Michael Bennet and their colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

But the version approved by the House Natural Resource Committee late last week contained amendments inserted by Tipton at the eleventh hour that weaken some of the bill’s environmental protections, several stakeholders have alleged.

These stakeholders, who played a key role in developing the original grassroots legislation, complained they had less than two days to respond to the amendments before the bill went into markup last Thursday.

The original bill “was the product of years of hard work and consensus—and it had broad, bipartisan support among local stakeholders, from sportsmen’s and conservation groups to local businesses and county officials,” said Ty Churchwell, Hermosa coordinator for Trout Unlimited, in a release last week. “The amended bill raised a number of questions about whether the original consensus was still being honored.”

One of the main points of contention, Churchwell said, is the 108,000-acre Watershed Protection Area, concerned with protecting the health of the Hermosa Creek watershed and safeguarding the purity of its water, native trout fishery and recreational values.

Trout Unlimited argued that the language pertaining to this provision had been fuzzied in the amended version of the bill, and called for clarity “before the bill progresses further in Congress.”

Trout Unlimited also asserted that the new version of the bill has inserted a “broader management approach” for a Special Management Area designated within the bill, which could weaken environmental protections while allowing expanded logging and mining.

Conservation Colorado Executive Director Pete Maysmith released a more strongly worded statement, asserting that the “deeply flawed” substitute amendment introduced by Congressman Tipton “threatens the future of this legislation and the future of Hermosa Creek.”

“The 11th hour language introduced in the substitute amendment fundamentally rewrites the legislation to suit narrow ideological tastes and undermines years of negotiations between diverse stakeholders in southwest Colorado and jeopardizes the future of the bill,” he stated. “We call on Congress to set aside DC politics and instead advance common sense protections for this stunning area, as agreed upon by diverse local stakeholders.”

Officials from both San Juan and La Plata Counties also objected to the changes Tipton proposed in his amendments.

San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier told the Durango Herald last week that text was added to allow future “roads and transmission lines going across wilderness areas,” which goes against what the local stakeholders had agreed upon.

Tipton’s office put a different spin on the bill, stressing that it “seeks to protect the Hermosa Creek Watershed as well as protect multiple use of the land.”

One major impetus behind the amendments, his office explained, was to protect the rights of snowmobilers to recreate on a small but popular portion of the Molas Lake trail system groomed by the Silverton Snowmobile Club that passes through the West Needles Contiguous Wilderness Study Area.

A few years ago, the Bureau of Land Management inherited management of the area from the U.S. Forest Service, and determined that it should be closed to motorized travel.

When local officials started making noise about the negative impact the closure could have on Silverton’s wintertime economy, Colorado lawmakers joined forces in 2013 to tack a provision onto the pending Hermosa Creek bill, which would preserve full, historic snowmobile access in the Molas Lake area.

Tipton’s amendment achieves this by designating a part of the adjacent wilderness area as a motorized area, thus thwarting the BLM’s efforts to restrict snowmobile access in the winter.

The Colorado Snowmobile Association praised the amended bill and pledged its full support of Tipton’s efforts.

Tipton also asserted that his amendments did not erode the bill’s conservation priorities. “All of the major wilderness and conservation provisions remain intact – in fact, the acreage of protected areas actually increased by 499,” he said, mainly by tacking on extra acreage in the Molas Pass area.

Altogether, the amended bill designates 37,735 acres of wilderness (an increase of 499 acres from the original version), and 68,289 acres under special management protections.

Last week’s committee markup in the House was only one step on the bill’s long passage that may or may not end in eventual enactment, with much depending on how companion legislation in the Senate may fare. Bennet’s version of the bill (which he first introduced in 2011) still awaits a committee hearing.

Here’s a release from Colorado Trout Unlimited (Ty Churchwell/Keith Curley):

Trout Unlimited and other local stakeholders today expressed concern with a substitute amendment released on Tuesday, Sept. 16, that alters key provisions of the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act of 2014.

The bill is slated for markup in the House Natural Resources Committee today, Sept. 18. The original bill, H.R. 1839, introduced in May 2013, was the product of years of collaboration and consensus among numerous stakeholder groups in Colorado—and the bill enjoyed strong bipartisan support from its Colorado sponsors, Rep. Scott Tipton and Sen. Michael Bennet. The bill was widely seen as noncontroversial, and a model of collaboration.

Then, two days before this week’s markup—without input from stakeholders—the bill was amended to alter key habitat protections.

“The version of the bill that went into committee was the product of years of hard work and consensus—and it had broad, bipartisan support among local stakeholders, from sportsmen’s and conservation groups to local businesses and county officials,” said Ty Churchwell, Hermosa coordinator for Trout Unlimited. “The amended bill raised a number of questions about whether the original consensus was still being honored.”

One of those questions concerns the 108,000-acre Watershed Protection Area to maintain the health of the Hermosa Creek watershed, safeguarding the purity of its water, its native trout fishery, and its recreational values (§4 of H.R. 1839). That provision was altered by committee to say the land “may be called” the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Area. “In the last 48 hours I have heard varying interpretations of the Watershed Protection Area language,” said Churchwell. “I hope there will be an opportunity to get clarity before the bill progresses further in Congress.”

The original bill also established a Special Management Area to be managed for conservation, protection and enhancement of watershed, cultural, recreational, and other values, and for the protection of the Colorado River cutthroat trout fishery. The new version of the bill released Tuesday removes that language and replaces it with a broader management approach.

“It takes hard work to reach consensus on a bill like this,” said Tim Brass, Southern Rockies coordinator of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “Congress should make sure that the goal of the original bill is honored as it moves toward becoming law.”

“The Hermosa Creek proposal is the product of Westerners rolling up their sleeves and finding common ground,” said Joel Webster, director of western public lands for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Sportsmen ask that the House Natural Resources Committee advance legislation that honors the intent of the original stakeholder proposal.”

Trout Unlimited and other stakeholders called on Congress to ensure that the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act is true to the proposal put together over three years by a broad stakeholder process that was open, inclusive and transparent.

“Rep. Tipton has been a strong leader on the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act since he introduced the bill early last year,” said Churchwell. “We are talking with his office and gaining a better understanding of the changes, but we have remaining concerns with the language in Tuesday’s amendment. We look forward to working with Rep. Tipton and others in our congressional delegation as the bill moves through the legislative process to ensure that it fully reflects the stakeholder agreements.”

From The Durango Herald (Iulia Gheorghiu):

The original bill had the support of La Plata and San Juan counties, and had been carefully crafted by people who live there.

“People are very disturbed that this process, which was designed locally and has very strong local consensus with support from Congressman Tipton, has become a very different piece of legislation,” said Jimbo Buickerood, the public-lands coordinator at San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental protection group based in Durango.

Buickerood joined the Hermosa Creek Workgroup, an initiative of the River Protection Workgroup, that discussed protection of this area. He said the intention of the plan for the area had been to “keep it just as it is.”

But Josh Green, Tipton’s press secretary, said the bill is inherently the same.

“The amendment will in no way change the outcome of the legislation’s goals agreed upon by the stakeholders,” Green wrote in an email.

In changing the language, Buickerood said the will of the community has been ignored.

The amendment has removed a small paragraph on “Use of Conveyed Land.” Currently, certain areas are open to hard-rock mining and logging. The five-line paragraph that was removed acted as a safeguard against future exploitation of the land.

“There’s nothing in here that says they couldn’t turn it over to a developer of oil or a developer of gas,” senior director of the Wilderness Society Jeremy Garncarz said of the effect of dropping the paragraph.

Green said the omission does not deviate from the stakeholders’ aims for that section…

The bill had been a collaboration involving two counties, multiple conservation groups and outdoor recreational groups, and more than 200 local businesses in La Plata and San Juan counties.

“The amendment guts it,” Garncarz said. “It throws all of that work out the window.”

The Senate bill remains unchanged from the version created by the drafting committee in conjunction with Sen. Michael Bennet’s office. Support for the Senate bill continues to be bipartisan.

Here’s an opinion piece written by Alicia Caldwell that’s running in The Denver Post:

For six years, those who appreciate the treasure that is Hermosa Creek worked to devise a meticulously tailored plan to protect it.

If you think about how mountain bikers, miners, hikers and anglers might look at “protection” differently, you realize it was no easy task.

But they did it. And the legislation they crafted was nearing an important milestone last week when a congressional committee upended that effort with a surprise amendment that some say eviscerates the protections.

Locals are concerned and ready to mobilize. It has been called a dirty trick.

And some are pointing the finger of blame squarely at Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, who had originally introduced the legislation last year and proposed the amendment.

What was praised by some — including Tipton — as a model for how federal protections should be crafted was changed to allow roads and power transmission lines, which hadn’t been previously contemplated, to go to a potential reservoir.

But even worse, it would significantly alter the language explaining the vision for protection of a significant piece of the area, said Scott Miller, southwest regional director for The Wilderness Society.

And Miller believes it would muffle local voices in shaping a management plan for the area, just outside Durango.

“It’s real bad policy they just shoved in there,” Miller said.

In an effort to head off the changes, 21 area businesses and organizations, including the Durango Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to Tipton last week saying any changes would undermine the “community decision-making process and are therefore unacceptable.”

It was to no avail.

The GOP-run House Committee on Natural Resources last week approved the amended version of the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, which covers 108,000 acres.

The amendments are an affront to the diverse coalition of environmentalists, business owners, conservationists and recreational users who put their hearts and souls into the process.

I tried to talk to Tipton to ask him about the rationale for the changes, but got an e-mail from his spokesman Monday saying the congressman had “back-to-back meetings all day.”

The spokesman directed me to a piece Tipton wrote for The Durango Herald that tied the legislative amendments to federal management changes on another piece of land — Molas Pass — that pertained to the use of snowmobiles.

Tipton wrote that the Hermosa bill revisions “in no way changed the outcome of the legislation’s goals agreed upon by all of those who have been engaged throughout the entire process.”

I have a lot of questions about that statement and so do many of those who worked on or closely followed the plan.

The Herald’s editorial board last week called the changes — at that time just a proposal — a “last-minute dirty trick.”

Keith Curley, director of government affairs for Trout Unlimited, which had strongly supported the original bill, said his organization is still assessing the impact of the changes, particularly those relating to the goals in managing the area.

But more broadly, the legislation poses questions about how and whether Congress can agree on federal land preservation and what that looks like.

“Where it all lands is going to be closely watched by a lot of people,” Curley said.

The Hermosa Creek protections could hardly be any more consensus-oriented and locally driven than they were.

Whether the measure survives in a form true to its roots will speak volumes about whether Congress, particularly its GOP members, are truly serious about respecting local control.


Hermosa Creek watershed bill changes rankle locals that crafted the original bill

September 22, 2014
Proposed Hermosa Creek watershed protection area via The Durango Herald

Proposed Hermosa Creek watershed protection area via The Durango Herald

Here’s the release from the San Juan Citizens Alliance:

The House Committee on Natural Resources failed today to honor the community consensus on the protection of the Hermosa Creek watershed that was fashioned by diverse stakeholders over many years.

The Committee voted 22 to 18 to approve an amended version of the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act (HR 1839), stripping many of the watershed protections and transferring management decisions from localized decision-making to Congressional dictates.

Unfortunately, Rep. Scott Tipton failed to support the community’s consensus, which included very specific protective measures, by voting with the majority to severely alter the locally crafted legislation despite his previous indications that he would honor the legislation as he introduced it to Congress.

Numerous stakeholders involved in the Hermosa Workgroup process that spawned the legislation were incredulous that a “perfectly delivered” legislative process, created locally with near-unanimous support, could be bungled so badly as it moved forward in the House of Representatives. Mark Franklin, a La Plata County business owner, noted, “How possibly could a bipartisan supported piece of legislation to protect a locale so loved by locals be twisted into an effort to promote partisan public lands-related grudges? We were so confident that Rep. Tipton would say, ‘My constituents fashioned this bill in harmony, I stand behind it, please pass it as I introduced it – no modifications are needed’, but he did not.”

The possibilities of resurrecting the legislation to reflect the community consensus are uncertain at this point. Jimbo Buickerood, San Juan Citizens Alliance’s Public Lands Coordinator, stated “In the weeks ahead I’m sure Rep. Tipton will hear from his constituency “loud and clear” that the Hermosa Creek watershed is dear to us and we want it protected as we clearly indicated in the legislation we created. Hopefully from there the Congressman will lead the charge to make the necessary changes on the House floor or in conference to bring home a locally-fashioned prize, rather than a Washington DC designed edict.”

Here’s a response from The Durango Herald editorial board:

In a last-minute dirty trick that could wipe away six years of local consensus-building to protect the Hermosa Creek watershed, the House Committee on Natural Resources circulated a new version of the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act – this one drafted in secret without local input – two days before the committee was to take up the matter. The new language undermines key provisions that enjoyed near-universal local support, replacing them with edicts that run counter to the original measure’s intent, and could set a dangerous precedent for wilderness management nationwide. It is an unacceptable move that U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, the bill’s House sponsor, should push his colleagues to rectify.

The Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act has a rare and elusive pedigree. The measure that would protect 108,000 acres of beloved forest terrain north of Durango is the progeny of a wide-ranging group of local stakeholders from even farther-flung ideology and interests that convened to discuss how to preserve the pristine Hermosa Creek area and all its varied resources. This lengthy, thorough and painstaking process bore a consensus among wilderness advocates, water and mining interests, snowmobilers, business owners, mountain bikers, backcountry hunters, anglers and horsemen, county commissioners, city councilors and many others who worked over several years to craft recommendations for legislation.

The ensuing measure has won the hearts – and political capital – of U.S. senators and representatives from both parties and over several sessions of Congress. It has moved painstakingly slowly, but with steady, consistent, widespread support locally, regionally and federally. As close as lands protection legislation can be – or any legislation at all, these days – the Hermosa Creek bill was a slam dunk. In fact, it is just the sort of thing House Republicans claim they prefer: a locally crafted plan that represents the interests and values of bipartisan stakeholders. Despite this, the measure has moved slowly through a gridlocked Congress, and there has been little news of its progress since a subcommittee hearing in May – other than reiterations from the bill’s numbered and varied supporters that they hoped for action soon.

On Tuesday, though, everything changed when the committee announced a markup scheduled for today and distributed an updated version that would redefine the special management area so as to significantly diminish the local role in crafting a management plan for the newly protected area, ceding that power to Congress instead. Further, the new bill would allow for dam construction within the protection area, should the need someday arise – something the original measure allowed as well – but it goes on to suggest that any associated roads and transmission lines could bisect the measure’s wilderness areas. That has dramatic implications for wilderness management nationwide.

These changes are drastic. They are so profoundly at odds with the locally crafted recommendations that informed the original Hermosa Creek bill as to be antithetical. Unlike the process that yielded the original measure, the committee action took place in secret, without local buy-in and delivers a top-down edict that deeply undermines many years of hard work. Tipton must defend that local consensus and amend the bill to set right what was so inappropriately and surprisingly altered.


Still no action on the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act

August 25, 2014
Hermosa Park

Hermosa Park

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.

More Hermosa Creek watershed coverage here and here.


Volunteers needed for Hermosa Creek cutthroat restoration effort Saturday

July 11, 2014

From The Durango Herald:

The Five Rivers chapter of Trout Unlimited is soliciting volunteers to help with a cutthroat trout restoration project Saturday on Hermosa Creek behind Purgatory.

The work involves restoring disturbed areas around the fish barrier built last fall on the East Fork of Hermosa Creek. Volunteers also will breach beaver dams and perhaps install “beaver deceiver” devices to stabilize flows.

While cutthroat thrive on the upper end of the East Fork, non-native species have taken hold in the lower end and in other Hermosa Creek tributaries.

Beaver dams harbor refuges for non-native species.

Volunteers should meet at 9 a.m. at the bottom of Forest Service Road 578, which leads into the Hermosa Valley behind Purgatory.

Information is available from Buck Skillen at 382-8248 or Glenn May at 570-9088.

More Hermosa Creek watershed coverage here and here.


Hermosa bill up in the air — The Durango Herald

June 9, 2014

Proposed Hermosa Creek watershed protection area via The Durango Herald

Proposed Hermosa Creek watershed protection area via The Durango Herald


Here’s an in-depth look at the resource and proposed legislation for Hermosa Creek and it’s environs from John Peel writing for The Durango Herald. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet are among those with the final say, and the good news is they’re pulling hard for it. Both have introduced the act into their respective chambers of Congress.

But here’s the frustration: Even they haven’t been able to push through a bill that nobody on record has yet opposed…

In 2008 a steering committee formed, and in the next 22 months, it painstakingly, delicately, hammered out a balanced plan. Fishermen, hunters, mountain bikers, equestrians, motorcyclists, wilderness lovers, ranchers and water districts, to name a few, kept at it.

“Everyone was reasonable,” Churchwell says. But then he qualifies that, “Not in the beginning.

“Every one of us gave up something to get something. … It was an incredible experience. It really was.”

In all, it took nearly four years to craft legislation, says Widen, who is the Wilderness Society’s senior public lands representative.

“It was a long and tedious process, but that’s really what brought everyone together,” Widen says. “I think the way the Hermosa Creek group worked is just a stellar example of how it should work.”

Bennet and Tipton took the efforts of the Hermosa Creek Workgroup and created bills. The Senate took the first step last year by holding a subcommittee hearing, and the House did the same this year.

Next is for the bill to go to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and House Natural Resources Committee for “mark-up” – a process where committee members can make changes. If those committees pass the bill, it goes to the full chambers for votes.

“We are very hopeful it will get out of committee in the next 30 days and possibly a floor vote before August recess,” says Darlene Marcus, Tipton’s Durango-based representative. “It is a priority of the congressman and his staff.”

The House’s Natural Resources chairman is Doc Hastings, R-Wash.; Widen said Natural Resources member Rob Bishop, R-Utah, has indicated he wants to move the bill. In the Senate, it’s unclear how soon new Energy and Natural Resources chair, Mary Landrieu, D-La., will bring it up. It may help that Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., is a senior member of that committee and a bill co-sponsor.

Bennet, through his Denver office, said Sunday that the bill “recognizes the diverse set of people who use the space, ranging from ATVers to fisherman to hikers.” He called Hermosa Creek “one of Colorado’s crown jewels.”

“This is one of our most pressing priorities, and we’re hopeful that we can successfully move it through Congress by the end of this session,” Bennet said.

So what does the act do? For starters, it protects wildlife, much of the current trail use and water quality.

Zink, a Durango native, says he actually got involved stemming from his role as secretary of the Animas Consolidated Ditch Co. The hunter, cyclist and horseman dons so many hats “it wears my hair out.”

He likes the plan because it basically keeps land use the way it is now – and that’s what the community’s been asking for during the last half-century of studies and forest plans.

From the air, the 107,886-acre area, which comprises nearly the entire Hermosa watershed, is an uneven green carpet of trees, with a few brown streaks of forest roads north of the East Fork and the snow-capped peaks of Hermosa and Grayrock on the northern border.

The bill would create 37,236 acres of wilderness in the western portion. There would be a 68,289-acre “special management area,” with the northern chunk to be left as is, dirt roads and all. The eastern part (43,000 acres) would be protected as a roadless area but still allow mountain bikes and motorcycles.


Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act is still alive and kicking — John Peel

June 6, 2014
Hermosa Park

Hermosa Park

From The Durango Herald (John Peel):

It’s not exactly screaming through Congress, but the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act is still alive and kicking, backers and aides to two key congressional leaders say.

“It’s moving at a snail’s pace, but it is moving,” says Ty Churchwell, backcountry coordinator for Trout Unlimited and one of the movers and shakers of the plan.

The problem is congressional gridlock, some would say dysfunction. Senators and congressmen just aren’t in the mood to do anything that might help the opposing party, particularly with mid-term elections looming.

“If Hermosa doesn’t pass, it won’t be because of substance,” says Jeff Widen of the Wilderness Society. “It’ll be because of politics.”

An aide to Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., said this week that Tipton hopes to get the bill to a floor vote by August recess.

More Hermosa Creek watershed coverage here and here.


Hermosa Creek: Durango Mountain Resort is lawyering up to fight the USFS

April 27, 2014

Hermosa Park

Hermosa Park


From The Durango Herald (Joe Hanel):

Durango Mountain Resort is getting ready to sue the U.S. Forest Service over access to its water rights – rights it needs for future development on the mountain.

The dispute comes at the same time the Forest Service is under fire nationally for its attempts to force ski resorts to turn over their water rights as a condition for getting their permits renewed.

Meanwhile at the state Legislature, a bill by Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, to curb the Forest Service’s water-rights policy appears to be dead as Democratic leaders defer to the federal agency for the second consecutive year.

Roberts’ bill would not help Durango Mountain Resort, which has a slightly different dispute with the Forest Service. But the resort’s CEO, Gary Derck, sees a pattern of the Forest Service trying to get control of ski resorts’ water rights…

The ski resort owns conditional water rights to six wells on the back side of the mountain, on land its previous owners traded to the Forest Service in the 1990s. The trade did not include water rights, but the agency now says it will not allow Durango Mountain Resort to access the wells.

Lawyers for the Forest Service have asked a local water judge to deny Durango Mountain Resort’s rights to the wells. The resort’s rights are conditional, and it needs to prove to a water judge every six years that it is working toward making the rights absolute and putting the water to use.

But starting in 2010, the Forest Service began opposing the ski area in water court.

“Any additional proposals to divert and convey water from the upper East Hermosa Creek will not be accepted by the San Juan National Forest and authorization will not be granted,” former Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles wrote in a June 2012 legal filing.

The ski area’s owners say they have legal rights to access their water rights, and after several years of wrangling with the Forest Service, they are getting ready to sue.

“We’re trying to find a way not to go to court because it would be expensive, and we’re just a little old ski area down here in Southwest Colorado,” Derck said.


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