Two years later, Dominguez-Escalante should be model for the West

By Steve Smith

Towering canyon walls of red sandstone, bands of elusive desert bighorn sheep, ancient and mysterious rock art, cascading waterfalls in an otherwise parched landscape, rare and comforting silence. These are the striking and inspiring images from Dominguez Canyon Wilderness, at the heart of the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, which is itself a new addition to America’s collection of wild places now protected for all time.

Hidden in immense plain site along the Gunnison River in western Colorado, Dominguez-Escalante reflects both a bold geography and a bold community vision. These qualities are core values embraced by the Bureau of Land Management’s entire National Landscape Conservation System across the West. Dominguez-Escalante is now a part of this system, along with other treasured BLM conservation lands in Colorado such as McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

Dominguez-Escalante was protected by law two years ago, when President Obama signed comprehensive lands-protection legislation that included two dozen such places across the nation. That legislation, remarkable for the diversity and wonder of the lands it addressed, also reflected a rare and farsighted set of decisions by Congress, including the permanent establishment of the BLM’s system of National Conservation Lands.

That entire lands package, including Dominguez-Escalante, enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and reflected countless examples of thoughtful deliberation, respectful debate, and careful crafting of language.

As we celebrate the anniversary of these historic designations, we find lessons for successful negotiations — and additional protections for our natural heritage in the future. Among those lessons is the importance of diverse voices speaking clearly, and listening patiently to each other.

In a very Colorado manner, Dominguez-Escalante, and the wilderness at its heart, were crafted by a diversity of everyday people, elected officials, and knowledgeable interest groups — both local and national — unique in social discourse.

Ranchers, water providers, historians, civic leaders, exuberant hikers and equestrians, federal land managers, even a backcountry hermit — each and all hold the natural wonder of this place close. Similarly, those people held in common, and continue to hold, the understanding that everyday differences need to be put aside in order to preserve such a distinctive natural heritage and personal refuge.

Those diverse people worked several key details. Boundaries were adjusted to ensure continued access to critical water sources for livestock. A blend of land designations was chosen to ensure continued non-wilderness recreation such as mountain biking and off-road vehicle use outside the wilderness core. Language was included to ensure protection of delicate riparian lands along the Gunnison River, while avoiding conflict with human use of the water from that important river.

In a creative agreement, language unique in the entire National Wilderness Preservation System directs federal managers to protect natural streamflows in the primary creeks of the new Dominguez Canyon Wilderness. This was to be accomplished through a partnership between federal land managers — often held in disdain by conservative rural westerners — and the state of Colorado.

That directive has now been implemented. Late in 2010, the Colorado Water Conservation Board filed water rights specifically for the purpose of protecting the flow of water in Dominguez Wilderness creeks, sufficient for wilderness purposes — a high standard. This is the first-ever such wilderness water right held by the state, perhaps the first in the nation.

Equally important, that community effort resulted in an enduring level of diverse support for the new wilderness and national conservation area — a factor essential to the successful management and protection of the natural wonder of Dominguez-Escalante into the future.

This model — of creative and thoughtful citizens working together in a civil manner, of finding new answers to thorny western debates over land and water, of a shared sense of respect for our American public lands — can help guide future engagements, leading to similar successes.

Lessons learned in securing protection for Dominguez-Escalante can guide land use planning in Colorado and across the West. In a landscape that is at once timeless and rapidly changing, new public land designations that both honor Western values and preserve our precious natural heritage should become an enduring Colorado tradition.

Steve Smith lives in Glenwood Springs and serves as assistant regional director for The Wilderness Society. He was involved in negotiating details of legislation designating Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area.


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