Push is on to give Deep Creek new protection
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — After 20 years in limbo, a stretch of canyon southeast of the Flat Tops Wilderness is getting a fresh chance for federal protection.
In 1995 the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service deemed Deep Creek eligible to be designated a Wild and Scenic River.
Congress created this as a type of public lands protection with the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which was made to be more flexible than the heavy regulations that come with wilderness designation, said Ken Neubecker, of Glenwood Springs and associate director of American Rivers.
To be eligible for Wild and Scenic designation, the river in question must be free-flowing and have “outstanding remarkable values,” including particular ecological, scenic, recreational or geological characteristics.
Soon after the federal agencies found Deep Creek was eligible, an effort was begun to push for Wild and Scenic designation, said Neubecker.
But other advocates wanted to shoot for wilderness designation, which was a complete nonstarter, running into a water rights battle with the Colorado River District, he said.
Last year White River National Forest released its finding that the area is suitable for Wild and Scenic designation, which is the last formal step before Congress could make the designation. Next, legislation would have to be drafted with the community’s involvement, Neubecker said.
“Deep Creek is a rare example of an ecologically intact, lower-elevation watershed that is worthy of permanent protection,” states the suitability finding by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service.
Currently, the Cache La Poudre River is the only river in Colorado designated as Wild and Scenic.
But while the BLM and Forest Service have found the land suitable for Wild and Scenic status, the agencies are prohibited from lobbying for the designation, Neubecker said.
The BLM, Forest Service and American Rivers have held public meetings about the effort in Edwards, Gypsum and Glenwood Springs.
A handful of ranchers with grazing rights in Deep Creek have come to the public meetings, though none in Glenwood Springs, to fend off any changes to their grazing rights.
Others worry that giving Deep Creek the designation would attract more tourists, but it isn’t the same at creating a national park or national monument, Neubecker said.
Wild and Scenic areas aren’t created to be tourist spots, and they’re not marketed on road maps, he said.
The designation is also a way to provide permanent protection of the land and river under federal law while keeping the water rights with the state, Neubecker said.
Among the qualities that make the canyon suitable for Wild and Scenic designation is the largest complex of caves in the Western U.S., he said. Its scenic qualities are obvious, at depths of 2,000 to 3,000 feet, prominent cliffs, large outcroppings and ledges. It’s one of the last truly pristine canyon environments left in the West, he said.
“And the area has one of the finest limestone deposits anywhere.”
Neubecker told a small crowd in Glenwood Springs that his major concern for the area is the potential for mineral development.
The Wild and Scenic designation can come about in two ways: Congress can make an amendment to the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act or Gov. John Hickenlooper could petition Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
Though the later option is a rare occurrence, he said.
The community has the opportunity to be involved at a couple different levels, Neubecker said. First, the community can shape the language of the amendment granting the status. Unlike designating a new wilderness area, which takes a new act of Congress, a Wild and Scenic area is created through an amendment to the original act.
Second, the area would have its own resource management plan, which would be regularly revised.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton and Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner will have to get on board for the effort to be successful. “And I know Tipton won’t support it unless it has the community’s support,” said Neubecker.
Supporters will have to work with the communities and governmental entities involved: Eagle County, Garfield County, Gypsum, Eagle, Glenwood Spring, Colorado River District, hunters, ranchers and recreationalists.
The next step in this process is to form work groups including the community and federal agencies, said Neubecker. The timing for future meetings has not been determined.
A local attorney said he sees similarities between last week’s chairlift death of a New Jersey man, and a case he won against Vail Resorts 20 years ago.