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Opposition to national monument along Dolores River grows

A tree begins to bloom inside Dolores River Canyon, Apr. 23, 2023, near Bedrock. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
Plan to create a 400,000-acre monument stirs concerns over crowds, mining and access

A couple of weeks ago, Sean Pond was at home in Nucla when a group of ranchers visited and asked if he could help spread the word about a proposal to establish a national monument around the Dolores River. The proposal – it is not a formal plan – seeks to persuade President Joe Biden to use the Antiquities Act to designate a roughly 400,000-acre Dolores River Canyon Country National Monument in Mesa and Montrose counties.

Pond, a former nuclear engineer who now runs an RV park in Naturita, quickly launched a petition at change.org saying the monument designation would cancel all mining in the uranium-rich area, end hunting and cattle grazing and curtail motorized travel.

“I think it absolutely, positively could be a threat,” Pond told The Colorado Sun. “If you look at the history of monument designations over time, more and more restrictions are put in place as more people start coming. We could start losing access. These are public lands me and my family and our neighbors have enjoyed for decades. A lot of local people have a lot of concerns.”

In the first 10 days more than 2,100 signed the online petition, many leaving comments blasting the plan.

Scott Braden, a Western Slope conservation advocate whose Colorado Wildlands Project is among the 13 conservation groups behind the monument proposal, said the petition “is making mischaracterizations about what a monument will or won’t be.”

“It will not end ranching. It will not close Jeep trails. It will not stop hunting. That is simply not what we are proposing,” said Braden, pointing to an online fact sheet he helped assemble to better inform residents about the plan.

People around Colorado seem to favor protecting the Dolores

Colorado College’s annual State of the Rockies poll this year asked 436 Colorado residents about protecting existing public lands surrounding 162 miles of the Dolores River to “conserve important wildlife habitat, and safeguard the area’s scenic beauty and support outdoor recreation.” The poll showed 92% of respondents support the protection plan and 6% oppose.

Advocates for the monument last year commissioned the nonprofit research group Conservation Science Partners to identify “biologically rich pockets of unprotected public lands” in Colorado. The group’s report showed the five-county region around the Dolores River as the largest and most biodiverse of the 71 areas identified, with high biodiversity values that support a variety of animals and plants.

The Dolores River was flowing at 3,400 cfs on May 10, 2023. (Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Wildlands Project said the analysis underscored “the immediate need for comprehensive, landscape-scale conservation” around the Dolores River. The report suggested a national monument designation would ensure management that balances biodiversity and conservation with local economies and “preserves public access.”

National monuments are not cookie-cutter. Each has its own management plan. The most recent national monument in Colorado – the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument designated by Biden in 2022 using the Antiquities Act – specifically emphasizes outdoor recreation with wording that allows skiing, camping, hiking and snowmobiling.

But the rules that establish a monument can be changed over time, Pond said, especially as impacts from increased visitation become acute. Officials at the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, which was created by presidential proclamation in 2000, crafted new rules approved by the Bureau of Land Management last year that limited motorized access, banned recreational shooting and restricted camping.

“Over time, these places lost motorized access and what does that mean out here for ranchers who need vehicles to reach remote water tanks?” said Pond, who with his wife owns the Rimrocker Adventures RV Park in Naturita, which rents off-road vehicles and paddleboards to visitors. “The advocates here say there will be increased recreational opportunities. My response is there will be zero recreational opportunities in a national monument that don’t already exist without any restrictions.”

When Pond and his wife opened Rimrocker Adventures in 2021, he told the Norwood Post that tourism and recreation were thriving in the West End, a 2,100-resident stretch of western Montrose County where uranium and vanadium mining once reigned.

“People are discovering the West End,” he told the newspaper. “People are coming here and spending money. I think it’s just the beginning.”

Boaters float past ancient sandstone cliffs formed in the Jurassic Era inside Dolores River Canyon near Bedrock. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
A proposed ban on new mines raises hackles in West End

Conservation groups have spent decades trying to increase protections around the Dolores River, which often runs dry in the summer as upstream agricultural users drain Reservoir. The river swells In banner snow years, like 2022-23, and paddlers flock to the region for rare floats through remote canyons.

In 2022, Colorado’s federal lawmakers – an unlikely pairing of Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert – proposed the Dolores River National Conservation Area and Special Management Area Act to increase protections for about 68,000 acres around the river in Dolores, Montezuma and San Miguel counties.

The monument idea is meant to complement the national conservation legislation and comes from a push for broader geographic protections in a wider swath of land around the Dolores River by drawing in the remote gorges of the river corridor in Montrose and Mesa counties. The Dolores rolls through roadless limestone and sandstone canyons and old-growth Ponderosa forests, including the Bureau of Land Management’s 30,000-acre Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area in Montrose and San Miguel counties, which was created in 1980.

Advocates in March 2023 polled 750 residents on the Western Slope, including 450 in Dolores, Mesa, Montezuma, Montrose and San Miguel counties. The poll by Keating Research found 68% of residents in the five counties supported a national monument and across Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, support reached 72%.

Both the monument proposal and the legislation allow existing mining operations to continue while prohibiting new mining.

“This is not a choice between mining and a national monument,” Braden said. “We think there can be both on the landscape if we are smart about drawing the boundaries.”

The final boundaries for a possible monument have not been drawn. He said a formal map and monument plan will be vetted by local Tribes and communities.

Pond said a shutdown on new mines would not work for the communities along the Uravan Mineral Belt, a 210-square-mile geological zone that has produced more yellowcake uranium and radium than any other region in the country. But there hasn’t been any hardrock mining in the 2,100-resident West End community for several decades and the coal-fired power plant in Nucla closed in 2020 and was demolished. There are hundreds of dormant mines in the area needing remediation.

Uravan, where many Naturita residents grew up, is now a condemned town and a superfund site since 1984. Courtesy of “Uranium Drive-In”

But the price of uranium is up, over $100 a pound for the first time since 2007. There is a buzz in the West End communities of Bedrock, Naturita, Nucla and Paradox around a mining revival, Pond said.

“People here are excited about the prospect of good-paying mining jobs,” said Pond, whose family has worked in the mining industry and for the Department of Energy for generations. “If they stop new mining claims, they are taking money out of our pockets and taking the hopes and dreams of an entire community.”

The hope for a uranium renaissance on the West End is almost a half-century old and while mine revival proposals do accompany spikes in uranium and vanadium, large-scale operations have not returned.

Natalie Binder, who has converted a 120-acre former mining camp above the San Miguel River in Naturita into a boutique retreat and artist compound, said even if a national monument increases visitation to the region, “it will not change the remoteness of these lands.”

On Tuesday night, more than 100 West End neighbors gathered in the Gateway Community Center for a presentation by Pond, who offered his criticism of the monument plan.

“I think a lot of the perspective that this will be bad news is coming from the fact that no one has really heard anything about it,” said Unaweep Canyon resident Dean Rickman, who helped organize the meeting.

Rickman said most of the attendees of the meeting were ranchers and only a handful supported the monument plan.

Braden said no one has missed any opportunities for public input. There are many more meetings ahead as monument advocates shape a plan for increased protection that will include historic uses and existing rights. So valid mining claims, commercial outfitting and grazing will continue inside a monument that better protects the Dolores River watershed, Braden said.

“We hope to have many opportunities to persuade people that this monument could be a good thing for the Western Slope,” Braden said.

Read more at The Colorado Sun

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.