Southwest Colorado is one easy pen stroke away from getting a new piece of federal wilderness.
The U.S. Senate on Friday afternoon passed the National Defense Authorization Act, and with it a related group of lands bills that includes the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act.
The final step is getting President Barack Obama’s signature on the $585 billion defense bill. Every indication is he will sign it.
The Senate’s passage, by an 89-11 vote, set off a celebration among those who championed the Hermosa Creek act, which will grant protective status to more than 100,000 acres north-northwest of Durango. Of that, about 37,000 acres will be federal wilderness.
“Folks in Southwest Colorado can finally claim victory,” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said in a statement following the vote. “Everyone in the local communities ... can celebrate their hard work to come together and implement their shared vision for one of Colorado’s natural treasures.”
The process was set in motion six years ago, when the River Protection Workgroup’s Hermosa Creek committee was formed. The workgroup, comprised of hunters and anglers, snowmobilers, water districts, environmentalists, mountain bikers and timber- and mining-industry representatives, among others, spent the next 22 months crafting potential legislation.
The act was first brought to Congress in 2012. However, procedural issues and political wrangling that had nothing to do with Hermosa Creek itself kept it from passing. In 2014, the act was co-sponsored by Colorado’s U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall in the Senate and by Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, in the House. The House passed it, as part of the defense bill, on Dec. 4.
Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the National Wildlife Federation and other sportsmen’s groups also praised the Senate’s action in a news release.
“The Hermosa Creek watershed is a treasure for our local community as well as visiting sportsmen,” said Ty Churchwell, Trout Unlimited’s backcountry coordinator for Colorado. “(Bennet and Tipton) listened to local stakeholders, helped work through differences, and finally got this incredible place protected for all time. Our kids and grandkids will thank us for this farsighted act of conservation.”
More than 100,000 acres will be affected by the act. In the western portion, 37,236 acres of wilderness will be created. There would be a 68,289-acre “special management area,” with the northern chunk to be left as is, dirt roads and all. The eastern part, 43,000 acres, would be protected as a roadless area, but it still would allow mountain bikes and motorcycles.
It also establishes the 461-acre Molas Pass Recreation Area, a piece that helped snowmobilers support the plan.
The San Juan Citizens Alliance noted that the Hermosa Creek act also includes “components to protect values and resources on other public lands adjacent or near to the city of Durango, including mineral withdrawals for areas such as Perins Peak, Animas City Mountain, Horse Gulch and the Lake Nighthorse.”
Tipton, in a news release just after the vote, also lauded passage of the Hermosa Creek act.
“The people of Southwest Colorado who have dedicated so much time and effort as a community to help craft and support this legislation that will protect the Hermosa Creek watershed ... have reason to celebrate today,” Tipton said. “I’m pleased to have been able to work with the community and Sen. Bennet to get this locally driven legislation to the president’s desk.”
Hermosa Creek was just part of a large federal lands package included in the defense bill. Several Republicans, most notably Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, objected to including the wilderness portion. But other Western Republican senators supported the lands package.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, noted that it included smaller bills that had a hard time getting passed on their own, such as one that commits one acre for a school in her state.
“It’s tough to win the undivided attention of the Senate on some of these measures,” Murkowski said on the Senate floor.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., supported Murkowski’s statement, pointing out that Arizona is 80 percent publicly owned by state, federal and tribal governments.
“We’re promoting economic development in states like Arizona,” Flake said. “(The bill) allows land exchange to happen, that will allow a copper mine to be developed.”
The defense bill’s federal lands package incorporates bipartisan small bills to appropriate land.
“I would much rather have us move individual bills through the floor as we pass them,” Murkowski said.
Bennet emphasized the method used to create the Hermosa Creek legislation brought all those concerned to the table.
“The cooperation, compromise and hard work put into this bill over a number of years by a diverse group of Coloradans should serve as a model for Washington,” Bennet said. “I was proud to work with Congressman Tipton to get this important measure across the finish line.”