From the Watch
Proposed Hermosa Creek watershed protection area via The Durango Herald
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.