The Dolores River in southwest Colorado flows through one of the largest undeveloped landscapes in the state, a region critical for wildlife migration, biodiversity, cultural resources, and outstanding recreational opportunities. Legislation to permanently protect a portion of the landscape has been thoughtfully crafted by a diverse, local group of stakeholders over the last decade and was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Michael Bennet and co-sponsored by Sen. John Hickenlooper on July 15th.
The popular and bi-partisan bill, titled the Dolores River National Conservation Area and Special Management Area Act, would establish a National Conservation Area on public land along the southern portion of the river in Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel Counties. With three counties, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, diverse community groups, businesses, and concerned citizens actively supporting the bill, we are thrilled to see the legislation introduced.
During the last 20 years, 14,000 square miles — or almost 9 million acres — of previously uncultivated lands in the United States have been developed by buildings, roads, and other infrastructure like oil and gas drilling. Diverse, undeveloped lands — such as the region the Dolores River flows through — are critical in combating the coalescing climate and biodiversity crises, preserving cultural sites and artifacts, sustaining recreation and agriculture, and for wildlife habitat and migration.
It would be irresponsible to leave these special lands open for exploitation, development, and increasing recreation. Implementing safeguards for conservation and providing additional management resources are critical to better serve our communities in the long-run as the southwest becomes consistently hotter, drier and sees more recreational use.
The Dolores flows through sublime canyons that are popular for recreation and an oasis for fish and wildlife species. Notably, three sensitive native fish species — the roundtail chub, bluehead sucker, and flannelmouth sucker — depend on the Dolores for much of their life cycles. The riparian area provides habitat for more than 66 species of birds, and countless species of wildlife such as desert bighorn sheep and black bear. The towering terracotta sandstone walls rival some of the most beautiful canyons in the southwest, and are a jaw-dropping surprise for first-time visitors.
In the 1970s, the Dolores River was found eligible for inclusion into the nation’s Wild and Scenic River System, which is the highest form of protection for rivers in the United States. Initial concerns about a federal water right, raised by local agricultural and industrial interests, associated with a Wild and Scenic designation has spurred years of negotiations to find an alternative mechanism for protection.
Land and waters can be permanently protected using numerous administrative and legislative tools. Congress can create National Conservation Areas, national parks, wild and scenic river segments, wilderness areas, and national wildlife refuges through legislation. Alternatively, the president can use the Antiquities Act to create national monuments. All of these mechanisms can be modified to best serve the unique needs of local communities.
Since 2008, local stakeholders representing a wide variety of interests —from outdoor recreationists to farmers and ranchers — studied various tools and have worked together collaboratively to craft a National Conservation Area proposal to protect the lands surrounding the Dolores River. In 2021, Sen. Bennet released draft legislation for comment, and has continued to work with stakeholders, local communities, and other elected officials on the final details of the bill.
As it stands, Bennet’s bill would protect more than 68,000 acres of public lands adjacent to the southern region of the river by establishing a National Conservation Area on Bureau of Land Management lands, and a smaller Special Management Area on adjacent Forest Service lands. The bill does not directly impact water rights or flows, but puts limitations on future land, mineral, and water development within the National Conservation Area boundary. Additional large-scale water development upstream of the conservation area, which would unreasonably diminish the river’s flows, would also be prohibited.
The Dolores River is the centerpiece of a beloved landscape, as evidenced by long-standing community-led efforts to protect it. We must take bold action to safeguard this important place while we still can; to preserve the wildlands that characterize the southwest we all call home.
Partners who have participated in this process for more than 10 years are thrilled to see Sen. Bennet become a champion for this homegrown legislation. Now that the bill is introduced, we stand ready to help and urge our senators to continue to advance protections for the Dolores River and surrounding landscape – one of the most magnificent in all of Colorado – for generations to come.
Amber Clark, of Cortez, is executive director of Dolores River Boating Advocates.