Tipton considering wilderness trade-off bill

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., is considering legislation that would expand the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness overlooking the Grand Valley in exchange for reducing federal involvement in the management of a stretch of the Colorado River.

Should it be introduced, the bill would prohibit the federal government from further evaluation of the Colorado River as it runs through the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area in Colorado under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which has been used to stave off various forms of water development.

If the Colorado River were to be declared a wild and scenic river below Grand Junction, the federal government would be given a strong role in demanding the amount, quality, possibly even the temperature of the water delivered to the wild-and-scenic stretch, said Scott McInnis, a former 3rd District congressman.

“It’s not just development” that is an issue between state and federal officials, though, said Chris Treese, spokesman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It’s management, it’s water quality, it’s all the regulations.

“At its heart, it’s about who controls the Colorado River in Colorado.”

For organizations such as The Wilderness Society, it’s about preserving the river to the extent that it can.

“For people like me,” said Steve Smith, central Rockies assistant regional director for The Wilderness Society, “we love wild and scenic, so we could only countenance that possibility if there was a good set of other protections there or that could be put in place” for the river and land along its banks.

The Endangered Species Act plays a strong role in protecting flows of the river through the Grand Valley to the state line, so that aspect remains well protected, Smith said.

The establishment of the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness Area in 2000, though, left an area of uncertainty that environmental organizations want resolved, Smith said.

That legislation extended the boundaries of the wilderness area to the boundaries of the 100-year flood plain, “which nobody has ever found, let alone put on a map,” Smith said.

So the proposal is to extend the boundaries of the wilderness on the south side of the river to the river’s edge, wherever the river’s edge is at any given time. The boundaries of the McInnis Canyons conservation area, in the meantime, extend to the north edge of the river, wherever it is at any given time.

“It’s going to make the wilderness boundary a lot more identifiable to river users,” Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said, noting that the proposal so far seems noncontroversial.

The compromise garnered support from Mesa County, the Ute Water Conservancy District, River District, Wilderness Society, Colorado Environmental Coalition and so on.

“There was a real diversity of people saying yes,” Smith said.

The proposal springs from work by a stakeholder committee that recommended to Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, both Colorado Democrats, and then-U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo.

The recommendations have since gone to Tipton, who defeated Salazar in November.

The proposal cleans up some administrative and housekeeping issues, Tipton’s Washington, D.C., office said.


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