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Deep Creek wilderness deserves 11,000 acres

Efforts to formally protect the incredibly scenic Deep Creek Canyon have come to a paradoxical loggerhead.

Third District Congressman Scott McInnis, a longtime supporter of motorized recreation and extractive industries, is pushing hard for his Deep Creek wilderness bill, H.R. 2963.

The Colorado Wilderness Network, however, opposes the bill in its current form, and that’s the paradox.



The loggerhead argument is over three issues: size of the area, water rights and continued use of the canyon for National Guard helicopter training.

This newspaper has already gone on record in support of designating a Deep Creek Wilderness. The more scenic treasures we can protect for posterity, the better. Deep Creek, as anyone who has been to the overlook on Coffeepot Road will say, is certainly worthy.



The arguments, however, threaten to scuttle the wilderness bill entirely. Both sides should take a deep breath and go back to the negotiating table with compromise in mind.

Regarding size, McInnis proposes 7,350 acres, which protects only the rocky gorge of Deep Creek Canyon. The Wilderness Network proposed 22,000 acres last year and has now agreed to 11,000 acres.

The group seeks to protect wooded, upland benches in the upper reaches of the canyon, lands they say are beyond the popular snowmobile play areas along upper Coffeepot Road. McInnis says the uplands are part of “the working man’s forest,” areas that should stay open for motorized hunting and snowmobiling.

This newspaper believes the 11,000-acre proposal is valid. The Flat Tops offer vast multiple use areas for motorized recreation. Preserving untrammeled uplands around Deep Creek is a good idea.

The water rights question is more complex. Deep Creek would be Colorado’s first “downstream” wilderness area, the first not to include the headwaters lands that feed the stream.

Deep Creek water was the subject of intense debate this week in the House Resource Committee, and led environmentalists to openly oppose McInnis’ bill.

McInnis is taking the right approach in rejecting the Wilderness Network’s call for a federal water right.

Deep Creek transects federal land, yes. But Colorado has a solid water law system enhanced by a state-managed instream flow program that is fully capable of protecting Deep Creek flows.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board set a clear example just a few creeks to the west, when it obtained an instream flow water right for all unclaimed flows in Deadhorse Creek. That right protects the beautiful stream that feeds Hanging Lake, another of our scenic treasures.

The state water board should do the same thing on Deep Creek, and it wouldn’t hurt for McInnis’ legislation to make the wilderness designation contingent on a successful filing.

At present, his bill only requires the state water board to “determine whether or not instream flows in Deep Creek are adequate.” That is way too mushy a directive.

Finally, the Colorado National Guard has been using rocky spires in Deep Creek Canyon to train its crack helicopter pilots. By law, helicopters are barred from wilderness areas.

The National Guard is a good neighbor and vital for our country’s defense. McInnis’ bill would allow the training flights to continue, with annual review by the Forest Service. It also urges the National Guard to find an alternate site, which the Forest Service should help to expedite.

– Heather McGregor, Managing Editor


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