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Idea of National Conservation Area on Dolores River flows back to the surface

A raft enters Snaggletooth Rapid on the Lower Dolores River. The river came alive after a dam release ended four years without a rafting season.
Smaller proposed area is in Dolores and San Miguel Counties; Montezuma County seeks more involvement

Draft legislation to designate a national conservation area on the Lower Dolores River is being considered again, and Montezuma County wants a seat at the table.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has been working on draft legislation for a proposed NCA in collaboration with Dolores and San Miguel counties.

The topic was discussed during a May 11 meeting with the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners, Bureau of Land Management, Dolores, San Miguel and Montrose county commissioners, a Bennet staff member and other interested parties.

Legislation for a Dolores River NCA has not been introduced, and the draft bill is in the working stages, said John Whitney, Western Slope regional director for Bennet’s office.

If introduced, the bill language would be available to the public, and subject to debate and negotiation by the public and Congress.

The NCA proposal does not include Montezuma County, and county commissioners said they have not been privy to draft negotiations.

Montezuma County officials urged more involvement at the draft level because the NCA would be adjacent to the county and is downstream of McPhee Reservoir, an economic driver in the Four Corners area.

The Lower Dolores River flows from the McPhee Dam in Montezuma County.

Whitney noted previous Montezuma commissioners backed away from negotiations on an earlier draft version of Bennet’s bill released in 2015 and dropped in 2017.

“That was not us,” said Montezuma County Commissioner Kent Lindsay. “How does Montezuma County become a voice in this?”

Lindsay replaced term-limited Keenan Ertel in Montezuma County District 2 in the 2020 election. Joel Ira Stevenson replaced Larry Don Suckla in District 3.

Whitney said that after Montezuma County backed away from NCA discussions, Bennet’s office continued to work with Dolores and San Miguel on NCA legislation as they became the primary stakeholders. Proposed NCA acreage is in those two counties only.

“Our office has been working closely with Dolores and San Miguel county and we have a draft is consistent with what those counties want,” he said. “When we work that all out, we will certainly have a draft to share with other folks as well. We are getting there.”

Whitney was open to meeting with the commissioners about the draft and to answer any questions.

“If you want to be part of the conversation with the NCA, we welcome that,” he said.

Montezuma County Commissioner Joel Stevenson asked whether an NCA would keep that area from becoming a National Monument or Wilderness Area.

Bennet and BLM officials said they did not know a case of an NCA later becoing declared a Wilderness or National Monument, but would look into it.

“I think when you do an NCA, you have settled the discussion, as it were, of what kind of designation the land should have, ” Whitney said.

Dolores County Commissioner Steve Garchar commented that oil and gas leases remain valid on the NCA, and the roads would stay open.

Ed Millard, who represents Montezuma County on water issues for the Southwest Basin Roundtable, commented that “it is difficult to ask questions when we have not seen the draft legislation. It is not a very grassroots effort until we can see it.”

A concern about a downstream NCA hinges on whether the legislation’s language could be used to draw water from McPhee to improve native fish habitat in the river, Millard said.

Fish biologists Harry Crockett and Jim White of Colorado Parks and Wildlife conduct a native fish count on the Lower Dolores River in 2013.

Another concern, Millard said, is whether the BLM could designate an Area of Environmental Concern within an NCA as a way to benefit native fish species.

Connie Clementson, BLM Tres Rios Field office manager, said she would look into whether ACEC’s could be analyzed for the purpose of preserving a fish species.

Advisory committees with community leaders representing different stakeholder groups may be formed as part of an NCA.

Whitney said the current Dolores River NCA draft legislation includes an advisory committee that will have representative from Dolores County and a representative from San Miguel County, plus other stakeholders.

It was asked whether specific counties could appoint advisory member. Whitney said an NCA committee falls under the Federal Advisory Commission Act, and members are ultimately decided by the Secretary of Interior in consolation with county officials.

The Lower Dolores River is popular for boating.

NCAs are created by Congress and offer customized management of federal lands based on community interests to protect certain values. They include a management plan that goes through the National Environmental Protection Act process with public comment.

A lower Dolores River NCA would be on BLM land, and applies to public lands only.

The concept of an NCA to add protection for the scenic Dolores River canyons downstream of McPhee Reservoir has been around for many years.

Bennet released draft legislation for it in 2015, after several years of studying the idea.

It proposed an NCA along the Dolores River from Bradfield Bridge below McPhee Dam to Bedrock, and included a Wilderness Area for Slickrock Canyon in Montrose County.

The 2015 bill would have prevented new mining development, and did not establish a new water right. Existing uses were retained.

According to the 2015 draft bill, in exchange for the Dolores River NCA and Wilderness Area in Slickrock Canyon, the BLM would drop a section of the Dolores River’s eligibility status for federal designation as a Wild and Scenic River designation.

If officially designated, wild and scenic rivers can include a federally reserved water right.

After a review, Montezuma County commissioners at the time decided not to support the 2015 draft NCA bill citing concerns about potential impacts to McPhee Reservoir from new federal regulations downstream. The draft 2015 bill was never introduced.

Five years later, the Dolores River NCA concept has been revived in a smaller form that only includes areas in Dolores and San Miguel Counties who have expressed interest in the NCA idea.

“We have McPhee Reservoir upstream of this, that gives us standing,” said Stevenson.