Bennet seeks watershed protection

WASHINGTON – More than 100,000 acres of the San Juan National Forest will be protected under a bill U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet introduced Wednesday, highlighting a collaboration that has traveled from Southwest Colorado to Capitol Hill.

Bennet and co-sponsor Mark Udall, D-Colo., seek to designate the Hermosa Creek Watershed’s approximately 108,000 acres as the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Area, placing certain areas at the highest level of federal conservation while keeping others open for recreation and business interests.

“The Hermosa Creek Watershed represents some of the best Colorado has to offer,” Bennet said in a news release. “It deserves to be protected for our outdoor recreation economy and for future generations of Coloradans and Americans to enjoy.”

About 38,000 acres of Hermosa Creek would be designated as wilderness. No roads or mineral development would be permitted in wilderness areas, while non-mechanical recreation like hunting, fishing and horseback riding are allowed, Bennet staff said.

The following trails would remain open to maintain biking: Hermosa Creek, Dutch Creek, Elbert Creek, Corral Draw, the Colorado Trail, Little Elk Creek, Jones Creek, Pinkerton-Flagstaff and Goulding Creek.

The remaining approximately 70,000 acres would become a special management area, where land would remain open for leisure and business including mountain biking, motorized recreation, selective timber harvesting and grazing. Mining will be restricted to about 2,000 acres to lessen the impact on the environment, according to D.C. conservation organization The Wilderness Society.

All land designated as wilderness will be managed in accordance with The Wilderness Act of 1964, which provides for active land management to control wildfires, insect infestations and disease outbreaks, Bennet staff said.

Bennet’s bill also will protect Animas Mountain and Perins Peak from federal mineral leasing projects, as requested by the Durango City Council. This protection extends to the entire Hermosa Roadless Area as recognized by the U.S. Forest Service.

The watershed legislation is based on recommendations from the Hermosa Creek Workgroup, a coalition of area residents ranging from hard-rock miners to wilderness advocates, according to Bennet. The group met for 22 months to decide how to protect the watershed while still respecting local economies.

While in Colorado last summer, Bennet and his family hiked Hermosa Creek with members of local groups that included the San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, the Durango Historical Society and the Durango Water Commission. Bennet said the trip highlighted not only the area’s beauty, but the various personal ties to the watershed as well.

“We started a discussion about what this area meant to people,” Bennet said. “The sportsmen came to fish for native Colorado cutthroat trout and for backcountry elk hunting. The mountain bikers came to enjoy single-track riding on trails known throughout the United States of America and actually in other countries as well. The local water districts love Hermosa because it provides drinking water for the great city of Durango and workers in the timber and mining industries stressed that some of the watershed could contribute to activity in the future.”

Bennet commended the workgroup on its ability to overcome differences and forge compromises.

Rachel Karas is an intern for The Durango Herald and a student at American University in Washington, D.C. Reach her at rkaras@durangoherald.com.

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