ABOVE HERMOSA CREEK – Flying several thousand feet above this proposed federal protection area, the view is far and clear.
This is an awesome place of immense value to sportsmen, recreationists, resource advocates and the local economy. It’s easy to see that creating the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Area would be excellent long-range vision.
Unfortunately, the six of us in this Cessna 210 aren’t the ones making the final decision. Nor are those who spent several years at the bargaining table, tediously drafting the plan.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet are among those with the final say, and the good news is they’re pulling hard for it. Both have introduced the act into their respective chambers of Congress.
But here’s the frustration: Even they haven’t been able to push through a bill that nobody on record has yet opposed.
“It’s moving at a snail’s pace, but it is moving,” says Ty Churchwell, backcountry coordinator for Trout Unlimited and one of the movers and shakers of the plan.
The problem is congressional gridlock, or, some would say, dysfunction. Congressmen just aren’t in the mood to do anything that might help the opposing party, particularly with midterm elections looming.
“If Hermosa doesn’t pass, it won’t be because of substance,” says Jeff Widen of the Wilderness Society. “It’ll be because of politics.”
So why are six of us up here flying around? The best answer is that those who’ve created this bottom-up plan are leaving no stone unturned to see it through. We’re in a plane owned by EcoFlight, a remarkable, Aspen-based nonprofit. It’s the brainchild of pilot Bruce Gordon, who believes he can help protect wild places in the West by chauffering people for the bird’s-eye view.
I’d like to think I’m up here because somebody likes me for me, but the reality is I work for a newspaper whose voice is valued. I’m here to keep this issue in the public eye, to keep the momentum.
The rest of the lineup is Widen, with the Wilderness Society, who serves as our guide; Jack Llewellyn, director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce; Bill Haggerty with the Grand Junction Sentinel; and Kyle Ouzts with MercuryGives, Mercury’s community outreach initiative, which has partnered with Trout Unlimited.
It’s a little cramped in here, but none of us complain. As we head up the Animas River Valley toward Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort to begin our loop around the Hermosa watershed, we listen to Widen explain how we got to this point. In separate interviews later, Churchwell and Ed Zink, who played a key role in the plan, provide more depth. For brevity’s sake, we’ll skip the first 40-plus years – suffice to say that there were plenty of studies and meetings in the 20th century.
In 2008 a steering committee formed, and in the next 22 months, it painstakingly, delicately, hammered out a balanced plan. Fishermen, hunters, mountain bikers, equestrians, motorcyclists, wilderness lovers, ranchers and water districts, to name a few, kept at it.
“Everyone was reasonable,” Churchwell says. But then he qualifies that, “Not in the beginning.
“Every one of us gave up something to get something. ... It was an incredible experience. It really was.”
In all, it took nearly four years to craft legislation, says Widen, who is the Wilderness Society’s senior public lands representative.
“It was a long and tedious process, but that’s really what brought everyone together,” Widen says. “I think the way the Hermosa Creek group worked is just a stellar example of how it should work.”
Bennet and Tipton took the efforts of the Hermosa Creek Workgroup and created bills. The Senate took the first step last year by holding a subcommittee hearing, and the House did the same this year.
Next is for the bill to go to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and House Natural Resources Committee for “mark-up” – a process where committee members can make changes. If those committees pass the bill, it goes to the full chambers for votes.
“We are very hopeful it will get out of committee in the next 30 days and possibly a floor vote before August recess,” says Darlene Marcus, Tipton’s Durango-based representative. “It is a priority of the congressman and his staff.”
The House’s Natural Resources chairman is Doc Hastings, R-Wash.; Widen said Natural Resources member Rob Bishop, R-Utah, has indicated he wants to move the bill. In the Senate, it’s unclear how soon new Energy and Natural Resources chair, Mary Landrieu, D-La., will bring it up. It may help that Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., is a senior member of that committee and a bill co-sponsor.
Bennet, through his Denver office, said Sunday that the bill “recognizes the diverse set of people who use the space, ranging from ATVers to fisherman to hikers.” He called Hermosa Creek “one of Colorado’s crown jewels.”
“This is one of our most pressing priorities, and we’re hopeful that we can successfully move it through Congress by the end of this session,” Bennet said.
So what does the act do? For starters, it protects wildlife, much of the current trail use and water quality.
Zink, a Durango native, says he actually got involved stemming from his role as secretary of the Animas Consolidated Ditch Co. The hunter, cyclist and horseman dons so many hats “it wears my hair out.”
He likes the plan because it basically keeps land use the way it is now – and that’s what the community’s been asking for during the last half-century of studies and forest plans.
From the air, the 107,886-acre area, which comprises nearly the entire Hermosa watershed, is an uneven green carpet of trees, with a few brown streaks of forest roads north of the East Fork and the snow-capped peaks of Hermosa and Grayrock on the northern border.
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 still allow mountain bikes and motorcycles.
Everybody happy? Well, there’s more, but we’ll skip the elaboration. Read the bill if you’re that curious.
The wilderness area is excellent elk habitat and a major breeding ground, Churchwell says. I can’t see that from the air, but I’ll take his word. My eyes also can’t see into the future when, under a state Parks and Wildlife program, the native Colorado cutthroat will live competition-free after the nonnative brookie, rainbow and cutbow trout are eliminated from some of Hermosa’s upper reaches and tributaries.
Churchwell points out how vital the inclusion of hunters and fishermen was in getting full community support and Tipton’s backing. Another key was getting snowmobilers to support it by including a clause to allow continued use of a 460-acre area on Molas Pass.
The flight goes so quickly we don’t even have time to get scared about the landing. In a half-hour, we’ve almost completely circled the Hermosa watershed. Sure, I’m disappointed the ride’s over so soon, but then it hits me how wonderful that is:
This wilderness area is barely out of town. From some parts of Durango, you can see it. If you live in Hermosa or Purgatory, you can smell it.
And it’s big.
Stand along the Colorado Trail a couple miles north of Kennebec Pass and face east: you’re looking at a roadless area that extends for miles, and if you ignore U.S. Highway 550 (you can’t see it from there anyway), it extends across dozens of miles more of the Weminuche Wilderness.
Wilderness bills almost always have opposition – this one doesn’t. Tipton and Bennet work together sparingly, but they’re totally in cahoots on this one. Seems like it should be easy, but interviews among those involved in crafting this tricky plan reveal a lot of finger-crossing.
“There’ll be a big celebration around here when it does (pass),” Churchwell says. “What a win for the community when we get this done. What a win for the resource.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.