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Hickenlooper, Bennet Introduce Dolores River National Conservation Area and Special Management Area Act

Mar 3, 2023

WASHINGTON — U.S. Senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet introduced the Dolores River National Conservation Area and Special Management Area Act to protect over 68,000 acres of public lands in Southwestern Colorado.

“Southwest Colorado leaders have worked for years to protect and invest in the Dolores River. This bill turns their work into commonsense, bipartisan legislation that will pass in a divided Congress,” said Hickenlooper.

“Over millions of years, the Dolores River carved a canyon renowned – not just in our state, but across the country – for its majestic red rock walls that tower over the ponderosa pines. For the people of Southwest Colorado, the river is more than just a landmark – it’s the lifeblood of their communities and way of life,” said Bennet. “This bill was written in Colorado, by Coloradans who live, work, and depend on the Dolores River. It 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.”

In 2008, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management requested that the Dolores River Dialogue – a coalition of diverse interests in the region – convene a broad-based community group to study pressing management issues in the Dolores River corridor from McPhee to Bedrock, including the possibility of a Wild and Scenic River federal designation. Through consensus agreement, the working group, known as the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group, decided to explore the possibility of an NCA and appointed a Legislative Subcommittee, which included counties, water managers, conservation groups, landowners, recreationists, energy companies, and staff from federal elected officials’ offices, to draft a legislative proposal for further vetting. 

“Here in Colorado, we are preserving and protecting our world-class outdoors, supporting our thriving agriculture industry, and expanding opportunities for outdoor recreation, and legislation to protect our treasured land in the Lower Dolores River canyon is a great step towards achieving these goals,” said Governor Jared Polis.

“Our Dolores Project allocations are the centerpiece of our Colorado Water Rights Settlement. The Dolores Project provides clean drinking water for our people and the businesses that sustain our economy including our 7,700 acre Tribal Farm, cow herd and corn mill. The NCA legislation protects our Dolores Project allocations by legislatively resolving the conflicting authorities of the Bureau of Reclamation to manage McPhee Reservoir allocations and Forest Service/BLM authorities below McPhee Reservoir.  The legislation also protects Tribal cultural rights and practices in the NCA, and involves the Tribe in collaborative efforts to manage for sensitive native fish below McPhee, another key to protecting our Dolores Project allocations.The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe thanks Senator Bennet for his leadership on bringing these issues to a successful resolution in this legislation.” said Manuel Heart, Chairman, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

“San Miguel County has been actively participating for over a decade in regional stakeholder discussions to determine the best locally driven long-term management for the Dolores River. Collaboration with Dolores and Montezuma Counties and the Ute Mountain Utes has been one of the most rewarding projects for me as an elected official. The Dolores County NCA is a locally built and broadly supported proposal that protects the natural resources and existing use. We are grateful to Senator Bennet for working with us over the years and to Senator Hickenlooper for supporting our efforts to ensure the protection of this endangered landscape and enshrining local participation in ongoing management,” said Hilary Cooper, San Miguel County Commissioner.

“Dolores County has worked diligently on the NCA legislation since its beginning as the Lower Dolores River Working Group.  Through the years of collaboration of many varied interest groups we have a working product that shows how a bipartisan group of stakeholders can come together to provide local support and legislative efforts to protect a remarkable and adored landscape.  This protection will keep the Dolores River that flows through Montezuma, Dolores, San Miguel Counties and has increased farming techniques for the Ute Mountain Utes as a life sustaining and economic resource.  Knowing that the Dolores River with all of its outstanding remarkable values, natural resources and existing uses will be under local legislative control for years to come is a worthwhile feat.  We are so grateful to all we have respectfully worked side by side with over the years and especially to Senator Bennet’s office and his aide John Whitney for their continued support in this process,” said Dolores County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Steve Garchar.

“The proposal is the result of a long-standing collaborative effort to protect the Dolores River and the interests of the various stakeholders that it serves, including water users, agricultural entities, local governments, OHV users, conservation groups, and recreationalists. ln crafting the NCA proposal, Montezuma County, San Miguel County, Dolores County, and other partners sought to address a myriad of concerns, including those arising from the finding that the Dolores River is ‘suitable’ for designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act,” said the Montezuma County Commissioners. “lt is the position of Montezuma County that designating the Dolores River as Wild and Scenic would result in significant consequences for water users and other groups seeking to access natural resources along the river corridor. By supporting the proposal for an NCA, it is Montezuma County’s intent to ensure that portions of the lower Dolores River that run through Montezuma, Dolores, and San Miguel counties will not be designated as Wild and Scenic, and it is our position that the NCA proposal sets forth an acceptable compromise between the various stakeholders interested in utilizing water and land resources in and along the Dolores River.”

“I have worked continuously on this proposal since 2008. I believe local participation in the management of the area will provide better benefits for the native fish, scenic area, recreation, permitted federal land uses, private land values and water rights than a wild and scenic designation. I have ranching and farming operations in all three counties involved. I appreciate your continued support and hope this can go forward in the bipartisan way we have shown is possible with the diverse local groups that put this proposal together,” said Al Heaton, local rancher that operates in the proposed NCA. 

“A rapidly changing climate highlights the urgent need for better protections for some of our wildest public lands in the state. The lands in this legislation are a key piece of a broader landscape scale conservation effort to connect important wildlife corridors and protect the biodiversity in the greater Dolores River canyon country. Years of science-based collaboration helped move these efforts forward and we are excited that these lands near the Dolores are getting the attention they deserve,” said Jeff Widen, The Wilderness Society.

This bill is supported by: the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe; Montezuma, San Miguel, Dolores Archuleta, and La Plata Counties; the city of Cortez; the towns of Dove Creek, Norwood, and Dolores; Dolores River Boating Advocates, The Wilderness Society, American Rivers, Conservation Lands Foundation, American Whitewater, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Conservation Colorado, Sheep Mountain Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Alliance, Outdoor Alliance, Outdoor Industry Association, Jagged Edge Mountain Gear, Trout Unlimited, San Miguel Watershed Coalition, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Colorado, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

The bill text is available HERE. A summary of the bill is available HERE. A map of the proposed National Conservation Area and Special Management Area is available HERE.


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