By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer
DALE RODEBAUGH/Durango Herald
The East Fork of Hermosa Creek, seen in the foreground during a flight Wednesday, flows into Hermosa Creek. Both areas are part of the 107,000-acre Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection area.
Eight college students from around Colorado interested in environmental issues Wednesday got a one-hour history lesson about efforts to protect the Hermosa Creek watershed as well as a 30-minute flight over the terrain in question.
SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
The visit was sponsored by Eco Flight, a 12-year-old Aspen-based nonprofit dedicated to educating about and advocating for the environment through flying.
Durango businessman Ed Zink, who was born and reared just south of Hermosa, and Jeff Widen, an associate director with the Wilderness Society in Colorado, described the community efforts leading to introduction of legislation in Washington to protect the Hermosa Creek drainage.
The 107,000-acre drainage, all in the San Juan National Forest, includes 68,000 acres designated as a Special Management Area, with 43,000 acres of that managed as road-free but open to mountain biking and other uses. There would be 38,000 acres of new wilderness.
John Whitney, a Durango-based aide to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Darlene Marcus, a Cortez-based aide to U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, explained the current standing of parallel bills introduced by their bosses to protect Hermosa Creek.
Approval of the twin bills is no slam-dunk, the four speakers said. Ideology and partisan politics in the nation’s capital stand in the way.
Wilderness designations are hard to come by, said Widen, who has worked in wilderness advocacy for 25 years. “Even with local support from all interested parties there is no guarantee the legislation will be approved.”
The Hermosa Creek drainage, easily accessible from Durango, became the site of sheep and cattle grazing and mining as soon as the region was settled in the late 1800s, Zink said.
A century later, hikers, skiers, hunters, anglers, motorized vehicle enthusiasts, water agencies and the U.S. Forest Service have discovered that they liked the area as well.
As exploitation of the drainage increased, users realized that adversarial positions would lead only to hardline stances, Zink said.
They decided to work together instead of at cross purposes, he said.
Efforts to protect Hermosa Creek, an important tributary to the Animas River, would require managing land uses over the entire watershed, they realized. Studies were done, then revisited over the years.
In recent times, mistrust of the political system brought the decision to get federal legislation to protect the watershed instead of counting on a bureaucracy.
The first attempt failed in the last Congress when a Bennet bill didn’t get out of committee. The current effort by Bennet and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Tipton in the House awaits action.
“This is a stellar example of a cooperative effort,” Widen said. “No one got everything they wanted or even liked, but everyone can live with what was agreed on.”
Whitney said the job in Washington is to turn community consensus into legislation that can win approval.
“We took the final report from the Hermosa Creek committee – we call it the Bible – and will convert it to legislation,” Whitney said.
On Nov. 20, a Senate committee is scheduled to hear the bill.
The proposed Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act would create two areas – wilderness to the west and the special management area to the east. The latter would allow motorized recreation, selective timber cutting and mountain biking.
Whitney said it used to be easy to get single legislation approved if local Senate and House members were in agreement. But no longer, he said.