The Denver Post Editorial
Running along Colorado’s western border with Utah is a secret ecosystem on the edge of a vast desert landscape. Red sandstone rocks give way to lush cottonwood valleys, endless plateaus are covered with ancient piñon pines and aspen groves that shelter elk and deer from bears and lions, and sagebrush flats provide the ecosystems for grouse, turkey and coyote.
The time has come to protect the Dolores River and the incredible lands that surround it.
For decades these lands have been the backyards of Western Coloradans — many who let their cattle roam on grazing permits handed down from generation to generation. Families have secret campsites tucked into the public lands where unmaintained roads take them away from civilization.
From time to time, an outsider has discovered the beauty of this landscape. Billionaire John Hendricks single-handedly built a resort in Gateway, where Unaweep Canyon meets the Dolores Canyon at a confluence unlike any other in this state.
It’s only a matter of time until the crowds that both plague and bless Moab come east to Colorado’s Dolores River.
The Dolores River has been found suitable for Wild and Scenic River federal designation, but for decades Coloradans have resisted that designation. The resistance is understandable given the implications for water rights that come with having the federal government manage the river’s flow to protect habitats and fish species below the McPhee Dam.
Building on a conversation that began in 2008 with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper are now proposing the Dolores River National Conservation Area and Special Management Area to protect almost 70,000 acres of land surrounding the Dolores River from McPhee to Bedrock. Rep. Lauren Boebert has signed on giving the act bipartisan heft in Congress.
These lands are already owned by taxpayers, but have very little regulation and restriction under BLM and Forest Service rules. Adding a special management area could protect the lands from mining and drilling speculation and the degradation that occurs without camping regulations and the overdevelopment that can occur with new roads and trails.
This area needs a comprehensive plan and Bennet and Hickenlooper are right to seek something legislatively.
But another intriguing conversation is bubbling up like a spring in this Western landscape filled with old mining claims and irreplaceable Native American artifacts and cultural sites.
Would a national monument be appropriate for this land, and not just the small track along the river, but encompassing the great plateaus and other canyons that make this landscape unique and special? Or would such a designation infringe too much on land where for generations there has been minimal regulation and a sense of freedom and true public ownership has allowed for robust local utilization? A public conversation debating the merits of a national monument must begin, but time is of the essence.
There are a half-million acres of public lands in this area separated from the cities of Montrose and Delta by the long and commanding Uncompahgre Plateau down to Lone Mesa State Park and the town of Dolores where the McPhee Reservoir begins the journey of the Dolores River north through Slick Rock back to Gateway before turning to the Utah border.
All along the way is evidence of early Native Americans, predominately the Ute Mountain tribe, who called this area home before they were swept off the land in a violent resettlement program. Today the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe supports Bennet and Hickenlooper’s smaller vision of protection for the area, a step essential to protect the tribe’s water rights.
But a national monument on the land would offer much more protection and regulation, as well as more resources. President Joe Biden should begin looking at how he could use the Antiquities Act to protect this vast landscape for future generations as a pristine and wild place full of history and irreplaceable ecosystems that can’t be found anywhere else in this country.