Column: What it means to have a Wild and Scenic backyard
Several months ago, both the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service determined that a portion of Deep Creek is suitable for protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. It has been over 30 years since this idea was initially proposed, and the decision has been a culmination of decades of collaboration between the federal agencies and the public.
Many different proposals have come and gone since locals first advocated for federal protection. Deep Creek and its surrounding area have been included in several wilderness proposals, but all have failed to move past the local level. But what does it actually mean to us to have a Wild and Scenic River right here in our backyard?
Only one river in Colorado has protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act: the Cache La Poudre in the Northern Front Range. According to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, 76 of the total 107,403 miles of river in the state are designated as Wild and Scenic, which is less than one-tenth of 1 percent. In order for the classification, it must be determined that the stream is worthy of protection by demonstrating that it is free-flowing and contains outstanding remarkable values such as scenic, recreational or geological, among others.
The headwaters of Deep Creek lie high in the Flat Tops in eastern Garfield County. It flows through a spectacular limestone canyon for 15 miles until it joins the Colorado River just upstream of Dotsero. The view from the canyon overlook on Coffee Pot Road is awe-inspiring, with limestone cliffs soaring over 2,000 feet above the valley below.
The path to Wild and Scenic designation began in 1995, when it was deemed eligible in a joint study conducted by the BLM and Forest Service. The second step was initiated in 1997 in preparation for BLM’s Colorado River Valley and Kremmling Field Offices Land Use Plan Revision Environmental Impact Statement process. The White River National Forest joined as an interagency partner, and a suitability study was completed in 2015.
According to both agencies, Deep Creek can be managed under the Wild and Scenic designation “with very little conflict with other uses because most of the land is federal, and the likelihood of development is small.” The goal of a Wild and Scenic River designation on Deep Creek is to preserve its free-flowing condition and the identified outstanding values within the canyon for the enjoyment of present and future generations.
According to American Rivers, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is the “strongest tool to protect river ecosystems in the country.” A Wild and Scenic designation by Congress will preserve the river in its current condition by:
• Establishing a one-quarter mile protective buffer along the length of the designated river.
• Prohibiting any new federally licensed project that would negatively impact the river’s outstandingly remarkable values.
• Requiring the development of a river management plan.
Only Congress can designate a Wild and Scenic River. If designated, federal agencies are not required to acquire any private land within the protected area. In fact, they are not permitted to acquire more than 100 acres per mile of river corridor. All recreational, agricultural and residential uses may continue, and existing water rights are not affected.
The act is designed to be flexible. Any new development that is in alignment with the goals as outlined by the subsequent management plan is permitted. Once a river is designated, a comprehensive management plan is required to be completed typically within three to five years. Management plans are done in coordination with local and state governments as well as stakeholders and interested parties.
Often local landowners fear that a Wild and Scenic designation would limit their ability to use their lands as they see best fit. But a Wild and Scenic Deep Creek is not something to be feared by landowners. Instead it can be seen as a way to preserve the unique nature of their property and the adjacent canyon. All current diversions will be protected and a designation will not affect any existing grazing allotments. In addition, none of the vast recreational opportunities that we enjoy today in the Flat Tops will be affected.
It is now up to us as a community to determine if Deep Creek is worthy of this status. It will take an act of Congress to officially designate Deep Creek as a Wild and Scenic River. Talk with your local watershed group, or write to our elected officials and let them know if you feel a designation is worthwhile.
Dan Ben-Horin is a watershed specialist with the Middle Colorado Watershed Council. His column, Your Watershed, appears on the second Sunday of each month.
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