Dolores River bill gets a Senate hearing as advocacy groups consider national monument status
The trip down the Dolores River begins with red sandstone cliffs peering down at our boat from above pinon pine and groves of aspen.
Last month, United States Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper of Colorado requested a hearing on their bill to protect the river.
On Wednesday, there will be a Senate committee hearing on the bill, known as the Dolores River National Conservation Area and Special Management Area Act.
Community groups that advocate on behalf of the Dolores River Canyon are now starting to discuss the idea of President Biden designating some areas not covered by the bill as a national monument.
“I want protection for this river, any protection we can get,” says Glenn Dunmire, a field biologist who lives along the Dolores River in Cahone, Colorado. “If and when we have this NCA go through – it looks like it will, but who knows – it's politics. It's not a done deal ‘till it's actually been done.”
Dunmire is rowing us down the lower portion of the river in his lightweight wooden boat, called a dory.
“You know, people – the locals come down here and hunt, fish, ride horses, that type of thing,” he says. “Obviously there's a lot of locals here right now, boating, and (the river is) very important for that.”
Gray smears of storm clouds follow behind the boat as we drift down the canyon.
Dunmire points to a white ring high up on the side of the riverbank.
“Yeah, that's the high water mark from this year, from the high flow that we had 4,000 CFS a couple of weeks back,” he says. “And so hopefully this helped reestablish our river channel. I think it probably will be a big help because we haven't had a real flow in some time.”
Bennet’s national conservation area bill would prohibit new developments including roads, dams and mines from being built within certain boundaries in the Dolores River Canyon.
“I think the entire lower Dolores, which is really about half a million acres, really needs – those wildlands really need protection,” says Rica Fulton, the advocacy and stewardship director for the Dolores River Boating Advocates. “And a national monument could be a great tool to create that and set the stage for a new management plan for the entire interconnected landscape.”
DRBA is a nonprofit organization working to protect the Dolores through advocacy, while also functioning as a local voice for whitewater boating interests.
Fulton says she supports a potential national monument designation for the Dolores River Canyon.
“The scope of that, it's hard to say, you know,” she says. “If the (Bennet and Hickenlooper) legislation were to pass, then a national monument could just be Mesa and Montrose counties, where there's already three wilderness study areas there. So there's already really amazing wildlands there. Or if something were to happen, and the legislation, you know, doesn't pass, then a national monument could make sense for the entire river canyon.”
One of the advantages of a national monument designation, Fulton says, is that it could come directly from President Biden as an executive action instead of going through Congress.
In Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, polling done in March showed that by a measure of 2-to-1, voters would support such a move.
No matter what form the legislative protections take, Fulton says it's critical that the three Ute tribes in Colorado and Utah are included in discussions.
“So that's a focus of some of the groups that I work with now is making those connections, seeing if the tribes want to be involved in these protections, or not,” she says. “But that's huge to make sure that the future of these lands, (that) those people have a say and a voice in that effort to really shape what that could look like.”
Back on the river, Dunmire says we’ve reached his favorite part of the Dolores River Canyon.
“And this stretch is kind of the really the best stretch because it takes in so many different types of habitat,” he says. “So you start up in some pinon (and) juniper forest up top at Bradfield. As you can see, we're descending, we're already getting into these giant ponderosas. And there'll be Doug firs here and in a few corners, we'll start getting some of them.”
The first time Dunmire rafted the Dolores, he says he immediately knew it was a special place that should be protected.
“And I wanted to get back here as often for as long a duration as I could,” he says. “And hence why I would schedule myself to do every trip here. And that wasn't enough. So I moved here. It's been a love affair for me. I'm 38 years into the love affair. And I hope it just keeps going.”
The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources is holding a hearing on Bennet’s proposed legislation on Wednesday afternoon.
If it’s voted on and passed by the full chamber, it will move to the House next.
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