The wild-and-scenic issue
By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Report
While proponents seeking “wild and scenic” designation for the Crystal River believe they have a strong contingent of locals on their side, at least one Marble area resident opposes the idea and believes he will not be alone in his opposition.
“They say they’ve talked to everybody along the river and they’re all for it,” said Larry Darien, a native of the Roaring Fork Valley region and long-time owner of property near Marble in Gunnison County. “But they haven’t talked to anybody in Gunnison County.”
Darien said there are a number of landowners along the Crystal as it passes through Gunnison County who oppose the designation, and whom he expects will be there alongside him for a pair of meetings on June 14 at which the matter is to be publicly debated.
One meeting, scheduled for 4 p.m., will be at the Church at Redstone, and the second, on the same day, will be at the Marble Town Hall at 6 p.m. The public is invited to both meetings, and participating organizations are expected to include representatives of the two counties, the Town of Marble, the U.S. Forest Service, Wilderness Workshop, and the Crystal River Caucus, among others.
A group of long-time locals — lead by Dorothea Farris (who lives in Pitkin County), Bill Jochems (a resident of Redstone, also in Pitkin County) and Chuck Ogilby (who lives near Redstone and owns property in Marble) — have been working quietly with others who support wild and scenic designation for a 39-mile stretch of the upper Crystal, under the federal Wild & Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.
According to a timeline provided by Farris to The Sopris Sun, the current activity in support of wild and scenic designation builds on work going back to the 1980s, when proponents conducted an inventory of lands near the river and put together a “general proposal” that was met with “interest” on the part of the public, “but also opposition, primarily over concerns with federal authority over private property and existing property rights.”
But since the turn of the 21st century, the timeline indicates, “support for designation quietly grows as area ranchers start to place conservation easement on their properties, and citizens realize designation would protect the Crystal from dams and diversions while not affecting private property or water rights.”
“The primary objective [of seeking the designation] is to prevent dams on the main stem of the Crystal and to prevent diversion of water from the Crystal outside the watershed,” states a “presentation summary” outlining the group’s goals.
Farris and others commonly cite the fact that in 2012, the year before the current designation effort got started, the American Rivers organization listed the Crystal as “one of America’s 10 most endangered rivers.” That listing was based largely on the fact that from the 1950s until just recently, there have been attempts to get two dams built on the Crystal — one near the site of the Penny Hot Springs north of Redstone, the other at the old townsite of Placita slightly south of Redstone.
Those dams, Farris has said repeatedly, would have created reservoirs the size of Ruedi Reservoir [east of Basalt on the Fryingpan River] and would have drowned Redstone and much of the area surrounding the junction of Colorado Highway 133 and Gunnison County Road 3 leading to Marble.
The Colorado River District in 2013 gave up conditional water rights for those dams, after being sued in water court by Pitkin County and other groups. A year later, the river district declined to join the growing list of local governments that have supported exploration of the designation idea, which include the towns of Carbondale and Marble, the Redstone Community Association, Gunnison County, Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams board and Pitkin County’s Crystal River Caucus, according to news reports.
The district’s main reason for opposition, according to district official Chris Treese, is its objection to the aim of Farris and others to see that there will be no further plans for dams on the upper Crystal River.
If granted by an act of Congress, the designation would cover the Crystal from Beaver Lake just upstream from the Town of Marble, all the way northward through Redstone to the headgate of the Sweet Jessup Canal that serves downvalley ranches.
$1 million easement
Darien, whose land just outside of Marble is protected by a conservation easement that brought him nearly $1 million, has long opposed wild and scenic status for the river, arguing that such a status would mean unwarranted federal interference in the way landowners along the Crystal use their land.
“I think it’s unneeded,” he said of designation.
Adding that he does not favor construction of dams on the Crystal, he believes there might come a time when one is needed, particularly in light of predictions of water shortages throughout the west in the coming years due to climate change.
Given that, he said, “I think it’s short-sighted to preclude being able to build a dam on the Crystal.”
In a separate conversation with The Sopris Sun, Darien declared, “We live in an arid environment. That’s why we’ve been building dams out … west.”
Darien cited several other reasons for his opposition to wild and scenic designation, such as his understanding that the original 1968 Congressional act creating the wild and scenic rivers policy to set things up so the federal government could take control of land use within a quarter-mile of either bank.
Darien said that part of his concern about increased federal authority is due to his belief that the US Forest Service, under wild and scenic rules, would be able to exert control over his grazing rights for livestock within the quarter-mile zone, and would be authorized to ensure public access to the river regardless of a property owner’s wishes.
“So that is a taking, if you own the property,” Darien maintained. “Seeing how well the federal government manages everything, I really don’t think they can manage my property as well as I can.”
Farris and others have disputed Darien’s interpretation of the act, maintaining that designation of wild and scenic does not mean the federal government will exert control over private property rights, private water rights or local control of the river.
“What we’re seeking here is a very stripped down version of a wild and scenic designation,” Jochems told participants in a Colorado River Basin Roundtable in 2014. “We propose to leave land-use control entirely with Gunnison and Pitkin counties, as it is now. We don’t propose any further federal control over land use. We don’t want features that would allow any condemnation of property. All we’re concerned about is the main stem of the Crystal River and keeping it free of dams.”
A review of the original 1968 act itself by The Sopris Sun did not reveal any language that called for federal control of private property within the quarter-mile zone, though the Act does describe federal oversight of publicly held lands bordering the river.
And proponents of the designation have said that each new river granted wild and scenic designation is subject to its own, particular set of guidelines and rules, which in this case includes language that specifically states that private property rights, or private or municipal water rights, will not be affected if the river is designated wild and scenic.
Still, Darien said the possibility of federal oversight and control of the river and its environs is at the heart of his opposition to designation.
“What I’m concerned with is having the federal government ‘helping me’ on my ranch,” he declared.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, who said he plans to attend one or both of the June 14 meetings about the river designation, said his agency has no plans for such control, and that land-use decisions will be left to the governmental jurisdictions through which the Crystal River flows.
“Really, what we will want to do is maintain the existing character of the river,” he said, adding, “that’s part of what we’re going to talk about” on June 14.
He noted that while the USFS has supported the exploration of wild-and-scenic designation for the Crystal, the agency has yet to make a formal declaration of support or a recommendation for Congress on the matter, which he said will depend on further study.
Published in The Sopris Sun on May 26, 2016.