Deep Creek wilderness bill passes House committee
In what U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis heralded as a “great day for Colorado,” the Deep Creek wilderness bill was passed out of the House Resource Committee Wednesday.
But not all Coloradans are cheering the action. Environmentalists and a Democratic congressman from Colorado now oppose the measure, which one environmental representative labeled a “token wilderness bill.”
The Republican-controlled committee approved the measure after a failed attempt by U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder, to add an amendment protecting Deep Creek streamflows.
That amendment was defeated along party lines, in an 18-8 vote.
Udall, and McInnis, R-Grand Junction, are both members of the Resource Committee.
Udall said he could support the bill only if his amendment passed.
Said Udall spokesman Lawrence Pacheco, “The Democrats don’t control the House, so it’s hard to say how this will end up on the floor. But when you have a bill that has a water controversy in it, it doesn’t make it easier to get a bill out of the House.”
But McInnis spokesman Blain Rethmeier thinks the House will pass the measure this year.
The bill’s fate in the Democrat-controlled Senate is uncertain.
“It’s pretty much a crapshoot over there,” Rethmeier said.
McInnis’ bill would provide wilderness protection for about 7,350 acres encompassing the rugged Deep Creek Canyon, in the southeast portion of the Flat Tops northeast of Glenwood Springs.
Environmental organizations, under the umbrella of the Colorado Wilderness Network, sought a bill protecting 21,000 acres, also taking in the uplands of the Deep Creek watershed.
Negotiations failed to reach a compromise.
“We made (McInnis) a compromise offer last week which he rejected wholesale,” said Suzanne Jones, assistant director of the Wilderness Society’s Denver office.
Rethmeier said McInnis sought compromises, and action on the bill was postponed twice in hopes of working out a deal.
“We want a consensus bill here. We’ve put our best foot forward, and they haven’t met us halfway,” he said.
Environmentalists want a federal reserved water right to protect Deep Creek’s streamflows. McInnis wants stream protection handled under the state water law, by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, to protect existing water rights.
Udall also believes state water law can do the job. His amendment called for the CWCB to obtain an instream flow right to all Deep Creek water not now claimed.
Udall said McInnis’ bill only required CWCB to set, but not ensure, adequate streamflows.
“To me, solving the water problem means making sure that a Deep Creek Wilderness won’t be just another dry gulch,” he told the congressional committee Wednesday.
Rethmeier disagreed. Udall’s amendment, he said, would “give the state the power, but then it went ahead and told them what the decision would be.”
Even with Udall’s amendment, environmentalists had trouble supporting the bill, Jones said.
“This was a token wilderness bill,” she said. “It did not provide wilderness protection, and we are not interested in supporting paper wilderness.”
Environmentalists’ latest proposed compromise would have empowered the federal government to insure that the instream flow protections are provided under the state system. Jones said similar protections can be found in legislation McInnis sponsored to create the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The compromise also would ban out-of-basin water diversions.
Environmentalists worry that state instream flow protections don’t have enough teeth to protect streams from other water rights.
Currently, Colorado wilderness areas are all located in headwaters with no concerns about upstream water diversions. Jones said because Deep Creek would be the state’s first downstream wilderness area, proper streamflow protection is important. It would set the standard for future downstream wilderness designations.
Environmentalists also proposed a compromise of an 11,000-acre Deep Creek wilderness, Jones said, cutting back from the 21,000 first sought.
McInnis’ measure limits protection to land below the canyon rim, while environmentalists “take a more generous definition of the rim” on its western side, Jones said.
The compromise would offer interim protection for the other 10,000 acres, banning mining, new roads and trails and new motorized uses pending further study, she said.
She said the acreage in McInnis’ bill protects only an area already protected by its steep, inaccessible nature.
But Rethmeier contends environmentalists once supported an 8,000-acre wilderness proposal, “which is what we’re trying to protect,” only to come back later with much bigger ideas.
In their compromise, environmentalists also tried to resolve the issue of National Guard helicopter training in the canyon.
Jones said they worked with the National Guard to identify alternative training sites. Environmentalists wanted wilderness designation postponed until alternatives were found, and a deadline to be set for finding those alternatives.
McInnis’ bill encourages but doesn’t require the Guard to seek other sites.
“You can’t have wilderness with motors,” said Jones. “That conflicts with the whole spirit and intent of the Wilderness Act.”
While Jones said she was disappointed by McInnis’ inflexible stance, Rethmeier maintains that McInnis has compromised on technical aspects of the bill, and on language environmentalists didn’t agree on.
Steve Smith of Glenwood Springs, a Sierra Club staffer, said environmentalists are “still very interested in continuing … negotiations and putting together a better bill.”
Rethmeier was unsure when the bill might go to a full House vote.
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