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‘Study after study, same message: Protect the Dolores’

On Jan. 3, 1975, then President Gerald Ford signed Public Law 93-621 that amended the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to include an accelerated study of 100 rivers across the nation, and make recommendations to Congress. The Dolores River was included on this list of high priority rivers and became the first river in Colorado to be studied for inclusion in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

I was a young raft guide in 1979, working for an outfit called Rocky Mountain River Expeditions. The trips back then were more rustic than today’s typical rafting experience. It was common for us to rip and repair boats or get doused by the freezing waves. But we would endure discomfort over and over again to see the Dolores River Canyons.

Not long after the Wild and Scenic bill was signed, a study team began to take shape of government agencies, stakeholders and specialists. The study would be conducted on foot, on horseback, by raft, motor vehicle and from the air.

The rafting segment of the trip examined two separate segments of the Dolores River from Bradfield Ranch to Bedrock, Colo., then from Gateway, Colo., to the confluence with the Colorado River in Utah.

RMRE provided the guides and the equipment for the study team. It was a tall order, with many river miles to cover in a short amount of time. All of the guides were in our 20s, and we all believed the Dolores River Canyons to be more wild and scenic than any other trip we offered. The Dolores was still a free-flowing river then. Promising high quality adventure, untouched campsites, demanding rapids and monumental landscapes.

The report would later conclude what we already knew: The Dolores River Canyons were of national significance and found both segments suitable for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic River System. A few short years later, the BLM also recommended that the deep meandering canyons between Little Gypsum Valley and Bedrock should be managed as Wilderness.

I’m in my 70s now, and can look back across the decades where again and again, study after study has carried the same message: Protect the Dolores. Again and again, Congress has failed to act.

One of the participants on the 1975 study trip, David Sumner, a photographer and former editor of Colorado Magazine in the 1960s and ‘70s, knew more about the Dolores Canyons than anyone else on the team. He later reflected on the trip saying: “It’s almost too late to save the Dolores, but not quite – not yet. Even if she is severed, there are still segments, especially her magnificent canyons and her rapids, worth the fight.”

David became a friend and tragically died just years after he wrote those words. Fifty years later, I know David would be devastated by what has come to pass for the river itself. But I know in my heart if he were still with us, he would have already succeeded in protecting this extraordinary place.

The opportunity to bring permanent protections to the Dolores Canyons is at hand as a new national monument. I urge Colorado’s senators and President Joe Biden to take action now.

Like mine, today’s generation understands the Dolores River Canyons aren’t just about preserving recreation and the breathtaking scenery, but a safe haven for wildlife, countless cultural sites and a geologic wonder. Protecting the Dolores Canyons means ensuring the well-being of not just these values, but also building an integrated and sustainable economy for the regional communities.

Beyond sentimentality, there is an established tradition and commitment toward the strongest possible protections for the Dolores River Canyons. Let us not allow another generation to pass without ensuring that this national treasure is permanently protected for all.

Dennis J. Schell was a preeminent river guide on the Dolores, and innovator of the western river running industry. He lives in Arboles.