Vail Daily column: Designation will help protect Deep Creek | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Designation will help protect Deep Creek

Colorado is made up of many fantastic rivers. Just when you think you’ve found your favorite place to hike or fish or paddle, a new river reveals another secret fishing hole or cascading waterfall. In Colorado, rivers flow from the mountains to the vast plains and through desert canyons. Put simply, they are the soul of Colorado.

Yet only one river in Colorado is protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Cache la Poudre. Not all rivers are eligible for Wild and Scenic designation, as they must demonstrate they have especially remarkable values that are worthy of protection. Here in Eagle County, we have the opportunity to add another pristine river to the list — Deep Creek.

Deep Creek flows from the Flat Tops and Deep Lake through one of the state’s most spectacular and rugged canyons before it joins the Colorado River just above Dotsero. Deep Creek was the only river of many to be found “suitable” for Wild and Scenic designation by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

What is the designation?

A Wild and Scenic designation can be thought of more as an insurance policy that will protect the river and current uses from future changes that would harm its free-flowing character and special values.

A Wild and Scenic designation by Congress preserves a healthy, flowing river in its current condition. No new dams are allowed, and inappropriate development is prohibited. A quarter-mile protective buffer is established for public lands along the designated stream, and a management plan is developed to guide protection of the special values, or Outstanding Remarkable Values, that were identified as the purpose of the designation.

Designation does not prohibit development or give the federal government control of private property, nor does it affect existing valid water rights. It also has no effect on interstate water compacts. A Wild and Scenic designation can be thought of more as an insurance policy that will protect the river and current uses from future changes that would harm its free-flowing character and special values. Until Deep Creek is officially designated as Colorado’s second Wild and Scenic River, the Forest Service and BLM will manage Deep Creek as described in their new management plan to ensure the protection of its values.

What are the protections?

Deep Creek Wild & Scenic designation protects the integrity of its unique landscape and its associated values of geologic, ecologic and scenic value. Deep Creek lies in a deep, narrow canyon with stunning limestone cliffs that hold the largest complex of caves in the western U.S., including Colorado’s largest and longest caves. Designation will protect a unique ecosystem, including several state and globally rare species, including montane riparian willow carr, narrowleaf cottonwood and river birch, along with two species of bats that are very rare in Colorado.

Private property and existing water rights will always be respected, even with full Wild and Scenic designation. Local land-use regulations will still govern what happens on private land and Colorado’s system of water law will still apply. Current irrigation diversions will be protected and a designation will not interfere with existing grazing allotments. The many types of recreation currently enjoyed in and around Deep Creek, from hiking and hunting to four wheeling and snowmobiling, will also not be affected.

If you are interested in learning more about Wild and Scenic and the benefits it will have for Deep Creek, then join us in the coming weeks for a series of community meetings in Eagle County and Garfield County.

• Oct. 16 from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Glenwood Spring Public Library.

• Oct. 20 from noon to 1 p.m. at the Eagle Public Library.

• Oct. 20 from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Vail Public Library.

Ken Neubecker works for American Rivers as the associate director of the Colorado River Basin Program. Neubecker served as the president of the board of directors for the Eagle River Watershed Council and remains closely tied with the organization. He can be reached at ken.neubecker@americanrivers.org. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit http://www.erwc.org.