Wild & Scenic: working to keep river management local
Water issues are always contentious, but sometimes various organizations and competing interests come together to find solutions.
One such group of local entities, known as the Upper Colorado Wild and Scenic Stakeholders Group (WSSG), is looking to protect the Colorado River and is working to keep management of the rivers recreational resources under the auspices of local control. The group is focused entirely on the upper Colorado River from Gore Canyon downstream to Glenwood Canyon.
The Colorado is one of the state’s busiest bodies of water, with anglers, recreational boaters and sightseers congregating on the upper Colorado in large numbers. The headwaters of the Colorado start in Rocky Mountain National Park but it is below Kremmling, from Gore Canyon downstream, where the river sees its heaviest recreational use in the state.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service administer much of the Colorado River. Part of their regular administrative duties is the development of a management plan. As part of their management plans the potential exists for the Colorado to be designated as a “Wild and Scenic” river. Wild and Scenic designation is a function of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Official designation of a river as Wild and Scenic requires congressional approval but there are several steps in the process before official designation.
Once a river has been officially designated as Wild and Scenic specific management tasks must be undertaken. Local stakeholders however want to defer any determinations related to a possible Wild and Scenic designation to allow local groups the opportunity to oversee management of recreational resources on the river.
“The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act contemplates and puts forward a local option as preferred,” said Rob Buirgy, Project Coordinator for the WSSG. “We believe if we have a local alternative we can accomplish more protection than we could with people fighting over federal involvement.”
The WSSG is made up of a large number of stakeholder entities such as American Whitewater, Trout Unlimited, Northern Water, Grand County government, the Colorado River District and many more. The various stakeholders sometimes have competing individual interests but all members of the group are invested in keeping management of recreational resources on the Colorado under local control.
“The BLM and the (US) Forest Service have agreed to defer a suitability determination,” Buirgy said. “This section of the river has not been found suitable for Wild and Scenic. It was not found unsuitable either. The decision was put on the shelf to honor the stakeholders commitment.” WSSG has made an agreement with the federal agencies that any suitability determination can come off the shelf if the group fails to meet their commitments.
The recreational resources on the river the WSSG is looking to protect are technically referred to as Outstanding Recreational Values, or ORVs. The ORVs on the Colorado vary within the separate segments that make up the river but are primarily focused on recreational fishing, float-boating, wildlife, historic sites and fossil beds among others factors. The WSSG has set up a Web site, http://www.upcowildandscenic.com, where people can view the management plan the group has developed. Included in the management plan is a breakdown of the seven segments of the river overseen by the plan and what specific ORVs exist on each segment.
Assistant General Manager for Northern Water Alan Berryman spoke positively about the WSSG. “We have come up with a pretty good program where all the local stakeholders and state interests are there,” said Berryman. “We are kind of starting a new era operating on a more formal basis. The main deal is trying to protect the ORVs.”
Berryman went on to explain the WSSG works to balance water uses with protection of the ORVs for future use.
Legal Counsel for Trout Unlimited Mely Whiting discussed the balancing act a bit further. “This is a locally driven locally focused group of stakeholders trying to preserve the value of the river in a way that you can also have water diversion and water operations continue,” Whiting said. “This group is trying to figure out how to manage the river and move forward the elements of the management plan. If we see any problems we have all the players at the table. The goal is that if something does start showing up we will be able to coordinate operations to make things better.”
Mike Eytel, Senior Water Resource Specialist with the Colorado River District explained some of the background of the group. “About every 15 years or so federal agencies update their management plans,” Eytel said. “The real driver of this one was the BLM’s Resource Management Plan. That kicked this whole thing off. We inserted ourselves in to the suitability phase. We finally got a record of decision about six months ago. The process has been going on about seven years.”
Eytel also said that the US Forest Service deemed the Colorado River eligible for designation in their last resource management plan.
While WSSG was waiting on a record of decision from the federal agencies the organization developed a list of tasks to be undertaken by the group. According to Project Coordinator Buirgy several of those tasks have already been completed and the organization is looking to complete the remainder. “We are queuing up the honey-do list and are focused on accomplishing those tasks. We have given ourselves three to five years.”
The full list of the WSSG planned future tasks can be found under attachment B in the groups management plan.
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