TELLURIDE – The U.S. Bureau of Land Management Uncompahgre Field Office is seeking public comment as it determines whether 11 sections of the San Miguel River are suitable for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and this upriver community appears to be offering its unqualified support for the enhanced level of federal protection on some, if not all of them, if a recent meeting here is any indication.
“The health of our business is absolutely reliant on the health of the San Miguel,” said Telluride Outside owner John Duncan at a meeting in Telluride on Tuesday night during which attendees heard presentations on the river’s fish and riparian habitats and the BLM sought feedback on four of the 11 segments.
While Duncan was urging protection for the specific, 14.25-mile section of the river running downstream from Beaver Creek, his comments could have easily been restated about other sections of the river, and were, by other locals who depend on the river for their economic, recreational and even spiritual vitality.
“Speaking on behalf of myself and 36 guides, I’m stating for the public record that our business interests are very much aligned in preserving this section of the river,” Duncan said.
Jagged Edge Owner Eric Dalton agreed, describing the river as “an economic driver” while commenting about the Beaver Creek section.
In addition to a handful of local companies, outfitters from other parts of the state including Durango also choose to guide that and other stretches of the San Miguel, he said. “I really think that’s saying something about how special what we have here is,” Dalton explained. “If we didn’t have that river here my employees wouldn’t have jobs and I wouldn’t be in business.”
Following an exhaustive process in which the BLM inventoried every known river with a perennial or intermittent flow within the 675,000-acre Uncompahgre Planning Area, it determined that more than 30 segments of 22 rivers possessed the qualities necessary for eligibility. That is, they must be free-flowing as defined by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, and also contain one or more “outstandingly remarkable values.”
Those values must be river related and may be scenic, recreational, geologic, cultural or historic in nature, or result from large quantities or rare species of fish, wildlife or vegetation, or similar values.
The river evaluation was required as the agency revises its Resource Management Plan for the planning area.
“We’re not doing because we think it’s a good time to do it, or because we want to get involved in some river controversy,” laughed BLM Water Rights and Instream Flow Coordinator Roy Smith at an introductory meeting held a few weeks ago.
“Under the [WRSA] we are required to whenever we do land use planning.”
The BLM released its final eligibility report in June, which tentatively classified the eligible sections of the San Miguel and other rivers as wild, scenic or recreational based upon water quality and the level of human development along the river corridor.
Wild segments are essentially undeveloped, while recreational areas can have extensive development along their shorelines. Scenic areas fall in between the two.
Eligible river segments are given interim protection until the suitability analysis is completed and a Record of Decision is issued, with the intent of protecting the values for which a section was determined eligible.
While the BLM makes recommendations on the suitability of the segments, ultimately only the U.S. Congress or the Secretary of the Interior can make the final designation.
“Federal designation is a huge process that goes through a massive amount of input,” said Hilary White, Executive Director of local environmental organization Sheep Mountain Alliance, who is following the process closely. Ultimately, “It most likely will not happen for five to 10 years.”
While some people including Lonnie Taylor, a Grand Junction man who mines river gravel for gold and was the only skeptic to speak at the Telluride meeting, worry that any designation will mean an end to his recreational enjoyment of the river (others are more concerned about water, mineral excavation, grazing and private property rights), the reality is different.
While rivers are managed with the goal of protecting and enhancing the values that caused its designation, designation does not prohibit development, nor does it give the federal government control over private property.
“The designation is meant to ensure that the river runs freely and that future development doesn’t deplete the river to the point of killing the values that live within it, explained Peter Mueller, a member of the BLM Southwest Colorado Regional Advisory Committee and, with Naturita’s John Reams, one of two local members of the Southwest Colorado RAC subgroup composed of area residents representing diverse interests within the Uncompahgre Field Office.
The eight-member subgroup is responsible for forwarding consensus-based recommendations regarding Wild and Scenic River suitability by February 2011 to the Southwest Colorado RAC.
With the survival of three species of native fish that live in the river in question (earlier this year both the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the BLM recommended that the Colorado Water Conservation Board appropriate an instream water flow on the lower San Miguel River primarily to protect the flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and roundtail chub from being listed for federal protection under the federal Endangered Species Act) White believes that a Wild and Scenic designation, which provides for a federal junior water right, could help thwart a more restrictive federal action.
“If those fish are listed then the Feds can take as much water as is needed to protect the environment,” she said. “That’s a senior water right that could potentially usurp all others.”
As of the 40th anniversary of the WSRA in 2008, 166 river segments totaling more than 11,000 miles in 38 states and Puerto Rico have been protected through the act, making up a little more than one-quarter of one percent of the nation’s rivers.
Among them are 76 miles of the Cache La Poudre River near Fort Collins, the only Wild and Scenic designation in the state.
The Southwest Regional Advisory Committee will hold public meetings concerning private property impacts and the remaining sections of the San Miguel River at the Wilkinson Public Library on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 5:30-7:30 p.m., and the Norwood Community Center on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
The following week open discussions will take place at the Placerville Fire Department on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 6:30-8:30 p.m. and the Naturita Community Center on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 6:30-8:30 p.m.