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Bennet calls for ‘strong bipartisan vote’ in favor of Dolores River Canyon protection bill

Proposed legislation rooted in ‘thoughtful compromise,’ senator says
Boaters float Slick Rock Canyon on the Dolores River. (Courtesy of Rig to Flip)

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet urged his colleagues to vote for conservation legislation that would protect the Dolores River Canyon during a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources legislative hearing Thursday.

The Dolores River National Conservation Area and Special Management Area Act, which Bennet introduced alongside fellow Colorado Democrat Sen. John Hickenlooper in July, would add federal protections to more than 68,000 acres of public lands encompassing the river canyon and tributaries below McPhee Dam in Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties.

More than 53,000 acres of land would be designated a national conservation area, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The remaining 15,664 acres, in a section of land that incorporates the San Juan National Forest, would become a federal special management area.

In his testimony before the committee, Bennet described the legislation as a “thoughtful compromise bill written on the ground in Colorado, by Coloradans.”

Bennet

“The bill includes a range of designations that reflect the range of interests in the Dolores River to conserve native fish, honor water rights and protect existing uses for farmers, ranchers, communities and outdoor recreation,” Bennet said. “This bill represents a balanced, sensible way forward to resolve many of the long-standing disagreements, protect the river for all parties and provide long-term certainty for generations.”

Two decades of collaboration

Bennet developed the bill in collaboration with a legislative subcommittee consisting of county officials, water managers, conservation groups and other stakeholders to represent the interests of all affected parties. In his speech during Thursday’s committee hearing, he said every local voice involved with the process “came together to find a middle ground.”

“As with any river over the years, different groups have had different priorities for its long-term management,” Bennet said. “While some wanted stronger federal protection action to protect the river and its native fish, others worried these steps would go too far and restrict local water uses in another place.”

When introducing the bill in July, Bennet presented letters from a number of local stakeholders who voiced their support for the legislation, including Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart, Dolores rancher Al Heaton and conservationists from organizations such as the Southwest River Protection Program and The Wilderness Society. During Thursday’s testimony, he had the letters entered into the hearing record to reflect widespread constituent support.

Local advocates compromise

In his speech, Bennet said the bill “enjoys the support of Democratic and Republican officials” in Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties, which he hopes will lead to “a strong bipartisan vote” in its favor among the Senate committee.

He added that every Republican U.S. House member from Colorado introduced “an identical version of this bill” earlier this year, including 3rd Congressional District Rep. Lauren Boebert.

Conversations surrounding appropriate management of the Dolores River have been a priority in Southwest Colorado for more than 20 years, leading to the 2004 creation of the Dolores River Dialogue as a local forum for stakeholders to share their perspectives on what the path forward should be.

In 2008, upon request from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management that the Dolores River Dialogue assemble a community-based working group, the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group formed to study management issues in the Dolores River corridor, including the possibility of a wild and scenic river designation as a means of protecting native fish.

The potential for a wild and scenic designation for the river was opposed by many upstream water managers, who expressed concern that such a designation would lead to a federally reserved water right targeting the upper portion of the McPhee Reservoir.

The bill protects existing water rights over the river, not impacting McPhee Reservoir operations or Ute Mountain Ute Tribe water allocations. It also prohibits any new mining, oil and gas leases, dams, commercial timber harvesting and roads from taking place on the designated land, but protects existing rights for oil and gas leasing and mining.

Thursday’s hearing served as an opportunity for Bennet to speak in support of the bill before his fellow committee members. A vote on the bill is expected to take place in the coming weeks.

Kate Corliss is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at kcorliss@durangoherald.com.

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