Wild and scenic river study creating tensions

Landowners worried about effects on property, water rights on parcels adjoining protected rivers


The Bureau of Land Management is moving forward with a plan that could ask Congress to set aside up to 155 miles of rivers and creeks on BLM areas in northwest Colorado as wild and scenic.

The designation could limit private property rights on lands adjoining streams designated wild and scenic. The designation also could curtail water rights and possibly touch off an exhaustive fight with the federal government, according to water stakeholders.

“I think it is really bad or it can be,” said Kent Davis, manager of the Escalante Ranch in Delta, which is owned by Dick Miller. “I’ve been here almost 20 years. We maintained it this way to the best of our abilities. I don’t think we need the government coming in here. I think we done a pretty good job (managing the rivers).”

Mely Whiting, water counsel with Trout Unlimited, said part of the wild and scenic discussion needs to be about long-lasting effects to the river brought on by permanent activities, such as ranching, on land.

“The reality is how long are they going to hold on to that (land) and what is going to come next?” Whiting said of private property owners adjacent to rivers. “The purpose here is to make a statement and preserve it for future generations so they can decide what to do with it.”

There are numerous waterways across the country with the wild and scenic designation. In Colorado only the Cache La Poudre River has sections designated wild and scenic.

The Grand Junction BLM Field Office recently studied 117 sections of streams and rivers on federal lands, not private lands, in the counties of Mesa, Garfield, Delta and Montrose. The resulting eligibility report found 20 segments on 15 waterways as candidates for the new designation. Affected rivers include the Colorado, Gunnison and Dolores rivers.

“Including a 20-mile stretch of the Colorado River west of Grand Junction, 18 miles of Big Dominguez Creek, 15 miles of Little Dominguez Creek and stretches of the Dolores and Gunnison rivers,” according to a statement on the BLM’s Web site.

The study, which is in its second phase, is part of the BLM’s update of its Resource Management Plan, with a twist from the late 1960s.

The federal law that mandates a wild and scenic study stems from a 1968 law. It mandates local BLM offices make wild and scenic designations each time they undertake a management plan, which the local BLM office is undertaking.

Suitability, said Erin Curtis, BLM spokeswoman, is at the heart of the study’s second phase.

During a briefing to the Mesa County Commission, Catherine Robertson, director of the Grand Junction BLM Field Office, said even though the designation would apply only to federal lands, what happens on adjoining land, or upriver on private lands, may affect the BLM’s ability to manage wild and scenic river stretches.

She expands on that statement, as quoted on the BLM’s Web site: “These segments would be determined not to be suitable for designation.”

On June 16 the Colorado River District gathered multiple stakeholders at BLM’s Grand Junction offices. The meeting was to begin the process of analyzing the BLM’s Wild and Scenic River Eligibility study to find a “collective alternative” that everyone can agree on and then submit it to the BLM, said Chris Treese, a spokesman for the Colorado River District.

“The wild and scenic designation has potential impacts on private lands and potential impacts on private water rights,” Treese said.

With the designation could come a federal reserved water right, which could touch off a legal fight on par to what played out over years in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison case, he said.

“We would like to avoid that,” Treese said.

In an attempt to avoid a legal fight, he is spearheading the effort to bring together local concerns and submit a preferred local alternative to the BLM by mid-2010.

“We (the River District) think that a local alternative is a preferred alternative to the unilateral federal designation,” Treese said. “Yet there are those that may favor federal control.”


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