WASHINGTON, D.C. – A committee in the House of Representatives approved the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act on Thursday, but in a version that has many people who have worked on protecting the watershed worried that environmental protections have been weakened.
The House Committee on Natural Resources approved the measure with two amendments that have raised questions among some stakeholders.
Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., commended U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, for his work moving the bill forward.
“His balanced proposal ensures that both conservation and recreation advocates win,” Hastings said.
On Tuesday, Tipton released an amendment that left stakeholders with just shy of 36 hours to understand its changes to the Hermosa Creek Watershed and to react. Many expressed concern about the surprise release of the wording so late in the process.
“Tipton’s amendments still do protect Hermosa Creek,” said Ty Churchwell, Hermosa coordinator for Trout Unlimited. “At the same time, if he’d done this a month ago, we would have had more time to process the changes.”
La Plata and San Juan counties separately contacted Tipton’s office, and both rejected the changes proposed in his amendments. Officials from both counties expressed support for the original bill’s language.
San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier said text was added to allow future “roads and transmission lines going across wilderness areas,” which goes against what the local stakeholders had agreed upon.
On Wednesday, Tipton’s staff members in Colorado and Washington sat down with several groups, including The Wilderness Society and Trout Unlimited, to address concerns.
“This is the nature of how quickly the House can move sometimes,” said Josh Green, press secretary for Tipton, in response to questions on the amendment’s introduction.
Green said Tipton and his office are optimistic constituents will be pleased with the altered bill after they have time to process the changes.
“All of the major wilderness and conservation provisions remain intact,” Tipton said in a news release. “In fact, the acreage of protected areas actually increased by 499.”
Acreage was added to the Molas Pass area near Silverton. The acreage allows snowmobiling in the area, and it prevents the Bureau of Land Management from restricting access to snowmobiles in the upcoming season.
“We applaud Congressman Tipton’s leadership on this bill and his willingness to continue to work with the community to ensure that the end product fully meets the goals agreed upon by the coalition,” said Scott Jones, vice president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, in a news release.
Jones met with Tipton’s staff, Sen. Michael Bennet’s staff, and other representatives from the BLM, Forest Service, and The Wilderness Society last week in Silverton to designate a part of the wilderness area as a motorized area.
“He and Mr. Bennet have been incredible partners in this whole process, and we continue to be grateful for their hard work,” Jones said.
Jeff Widen, senior regional conservation representative from The Wilderness Society, said the amendment introduced by Tipton affected more than the topics discussed last week in Silverton.
Specifically, under the amendments, Widen said the area would be lost to any future research opportunities by conservation agencies.
The bill faces further potential changes when it goes before the full House.
“I’m hopeful that as the legislation moves forward, that some of the language that existed in the original version will make it into the House version,” said La Plata Commissioner Julie Westendorff.
When Tipton introduced the bill, it was very similar to the version that Bennet had introduced in 2011 and reintroduced this session in the Senate.
“I’d say the most important thing is that we keep faith with the local community and with all of the work they did on this bill, and that is what we intend to do,” Bennet said Wednesday.
The bill will now move before the full House. The Senate version has yet to be marked up by the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Iulia Gheorghiu is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.