The Hermosa Creek wilderness bill has been included in the National Defense Authorization Act, again raising hopes among supporters that Congress will pass the bill before the session ends.
The defense act is one of the few remaining bills Congress is expected to debate this year.
“We are one step closer to a big victory for folks in Southwest Colorado who have worked together to get this done,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, said in a news release Wednesday. “The Hermosa Creek watershed is one of our state’s treasures and deserves protection.”
The Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act would grant protective status to more than 100,000 acres north-northwest of Durango.
Ty Churchwell, backcountry coordinator with Trout Unlimited and a key proponent of the plan, said Wednesday afternoon that “it’s a great sign.”
He said, however, “Until the votes are cast we can’t count on anything.”
The Associated Press reported that quick passage of the defense bill hit a snag Wednesday over public lands, dividing Senate Republicans.
The $585 billion measure authorizing funds for the military includes several bills to expand wilderness areas in the West and expand the program streamlining natural-gas and oil permits.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, objected to their inclusion and promised to block any attempt to quickly finish the bill next week in the final days of the lame-duck session, the AP reported.
“A bill that defines the needs of our nation’s defense is hardly the proper place to trample on private property rights,” Coburn wrote in a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. “Nor is it the place to restrict access to hunting, fishing and other recreational opportunities on massive swaths of taxpayer-supported lands.”
The provisions also include transferring management of a 140-square-mile national preserve in northern New Mexico to the National Park Service and making a land swap in Arizona that would clear the way for a much-disputed copper mine.
The House is expected to pass the bill Thursday. Senate leaders hoped to finish it next week, but they need the consent of all senators to act quickly. Coburn, in his letter, said he would “utilize all procedural options at my disposal as a United States senator” to block such action.
Other Republicans, however, said the wilderness legislation would create jobs.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., a proponent of the legislation, told AP: “It’s a real economic engine for some of the rural Western states.”
The Durango-based Churchwell was part of the Hermosa Creek Workgroup, which met for nearly two years from 2008 to 2010 and painstakingly crafted a plan that included input from multiple user groups, including recreationists, snowmobilers, property owners, water officials, environmentalists, fishermen and hunters. After that, Sens. Bennet and Mark Udall, along with U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, came up with legislation and introduced it into Congress in 2012.
“This is all happening very quickly,” Churchwell said Wednesday afternoon. “It’s coming down the pike, and we’ll know more tomorrow (Thursday).”
Proponents have been patient through the process and have seen a number of false starts and disappointments. The House changed some language in the bill when Tipton reintroduced it in September, upsetting several workgroup members. But a Senate committee later approved the Hermosa Creek act with language that more faithfully follows the original language.
The bill would create 37,236 acres of wilderness in the western portion. 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.
email@example.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.