GLENWOOD SPRINGS — A process that began nearly 19 years ago to have Deep Creek in far eastern Garfield County designated as a Wild and Scenic waterway is nearing the end of a formal suitability analysis as part of the BLM’s new Resource Management Plan.
“We are conducting our suitability analysis for Wild and Scenic Rivers through our RMP,” said David Boyd, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Northwest Colorado District. “We anticipate the proposed plan/alternative will be released late this fall or early next year,” he said.
In addition, the White River National Forest is working with the BLM to analyze eligible segments of Deep Creek as it passes through forest lands.
“The draft plan has identified both the BLM and Forest Service segments of Deep Creek as suitable for Wild and Scenic in two alternatives,” Boyd said, including a conservation alternative and a less-restrictive “preferred alternative.”
Deep Creek stretches approximately 15 miles from Deep Lake high in the Flat Tops north of Glenwood Springs, dropping more than 4,000 vertical feet as it cuts a deep, narrow canyon on its way to the Colorado River at Dotsero.
The study area for Wild and Scenic designation encompasses more than 3,000 acres of National Forest, BLM and private lands.
“If river or stream segments are found suitable [for designation], the BLM and Forest Service will manage them to protect the ‘outstandingly remarkable values’ that made them suitable,” Boyd explained.
However, the final determination would be up to Congress whether to protect the waterway with formal Wild and Scenic River designation.
Only one section of river in Colorado, on the Cache le Poudre west of Fort Collins, has formal Wild and Scenic designation.
Wild and Scenic designation is intended to maintain the free-flowing nature of waterways, free of dams, and offers other protections via federal, state or local regulations and management practices. It also provides for voluntary stewardship by landowners and river users.
It does not, however, prohibit development, give government control of private property, or affect existing water rights.
Evaluation of Deep Creek for such designation began in 1995 when the BLM and Forest Service conducted a joint eligibility evaluation. The waterway was determined to be eligible for Wild and Scenic designation at that time, and that status remains.
The effort became side-tracked in the early 2000s, however, when the portions of the Flat Tops where Deep Creek runs were included in two different wilderness proposals.
Although Wild and Scenic and wilderness designations can coexist, wilderness designation has its own, more stringent level of review and ultimately more restrictive protections, explained Kay Hopkins, deputy ranger for the White River National Forest’s Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District.
“They can overlay one over the other, but there are two different mechanisms to get there for each,” she said.
Neither wilderness proposal advanced very far, but the Wild and Scenic eligibility status for Deep Creek has continued until the BLM decided to include further analysis in its RMP update.
“This has been a long, ongoing debate, but Deep Creek has long been recognized, for decades and decades, as being a really special place,” Hopkins said. “It has taken a while to get to the suitability stage, but we do want to determine the best way to protect the characteristics of the canyon.”
Boyd said the Deep Creek designation is still being discussed and reviewed with the various cooperating agencies on the draft RMP, and the proposal is still subject to change.
One other area waterway, the Crystal River south of Carbondale, is in the preliminary stages of being proposed by conservation groups for Wild and Scenic designation as well.
“We are conducting our suitability analysis for Wild and Scenic Rivers through our RMP,” said David Boyd, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Northwest Colorado District. “We anticipate the proposed plan\/alternative will be released late this fall or early next year,” he said.