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Marble bails on Wild and Scenic designation

Locations: News Published

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

The Town of Marble has officially gone on record as opposing Wild & Scenic designation for a 39-mile stretch of the Crystal River, by a vote of 3-1 at the Sept. 1 meeting of the town council.

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Only council member Larry Good voted in favor of the designation, according to Mayor Will Handville, who did not vote once the majority tally was known — an abstention that Handville said is in accordance with the town’s regulations.

Voting to oppose the designation were council members Tim Hunter, Richard Wells and Mike Yellico.

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Handville, reached by cell phone on Monday, said he had not yet informed Gunnison County officials about the vote, but he said he planned to do so on Tuesday.

Marble is located in a remote finger of Gunnison County, and most of the 39-mile stretch of the Crystal that is the subject of the designation effort is within Gunnison County.

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And, the mayor said, he believes the Sept. 1 vote should mark the end of the ongoing controversy about the proposed designation.

“I don’t anticipate it coming up again,” at least not before the town council, Handville said.

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Addressing the issue in general, Handville noted that the concept of Wild & Scenic designation, which is a federal process based on a 1968 Act of Congress, might seem like something that most people would favor.

“I mean, who wouldn’t support Wild & Scenic designation?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s a beautiful name.”

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But, he said, in his view and that of others on the town council, the issue gets murky and problematic when the federal role in the process is considered.

He maintained, as have others who opposed the designation, that there are enough state and federal agencies that have some control over the river and the uses of land along the river — such as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Parks & Wildlife and others.

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As a result, he said, Wild & Scenic designation is not needed to prevent activities that locals might not want on the river.

“We’re all in favor of protecting the river,” he said, meaning the members of the Marble town council, residents of the town, and those who live along the river outside of the town.

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“Truly, it comes down to, do we want another layer of government controlling our river?” he added.

The answer, for Marble, is no, Handville said.

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“There’s too many concerns that I have” about federal oversight, he concluded.

Designation of the 39-mile stretch of river — from the sparsely populated village of Crystal all the way to just above the diversion structure for the Sweet Jessup Canal — has been the subject of debate for years. But the current effort has been led by attorney Bill Jochems of Redstone, former Pitkin County commissioner Dorothea Farris, who lives in the Crystal Valley just south of Carbondale, and local entrepreneur and activist Chuck Ogilby, who owns property in Marble but does not live there.

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The three have assured residents of the Crystal River Valley that the act contains language that would limit the amount of control that could be asserted by federal officials and that would largely leave control of the river and its adjacent lands in the hands of local or county officials.

The main purpose of the proposed Act of Congress needed to authorize Wild & Scenic designation, according to Jochems, Farris and Ogilby, is quite simple and straightforward — prevent anyone from building a dam on the Crystal, and prevent anyone from diverting water out of the Crystal for uses outside the watershed that touches on Gunnison, Pitkin and Garfield Counties.

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And while conceding that the Wild & Scenic Act of 1968 does contain numerous provisions aimed at boosting federal control over land use near designated rivers, supporters of designation have maintained that the proposed Act they would send to Congress for designation of the Crystal would be couched in language that would prevent such things as condemnation of private lands, federal control over all land uses within a quarter-mile of the river, and other provisions that opponents of Wild & Scenic designation say they fear.

But the opposition, which is united in its distrust of the federal government, apparently has not been swayed by the supporters’ arguments.

Jochems, who is an attorney in Redstone but was not at the Marble meeting on Sept. 1, said the vote by the Marble Town Council was not a surprise.

“This was a major disappointment,” Jochems said on Monday. “Not a surprise, but disappointing.”

But, he said, “We’re not giving up on devising some measure to protect the river. That might not be wild and scenic designation, but something else.”

He said the opposition by a vocal group who live along the river, as well a number that may be a majority of the 130 people or so living in Marble, seemed to be presaged by the makeup of a panel of experts who were assembled by the Gunnison County Commissioners for a meeting in Redstone on Aug. 9 about the designation effort.

Representatives of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado River District, for example, are “people just constitutionally opposed” to federal involvement in state lands and waters, Jochems said.

“These are the dam builders, the pipeline layers, the reservoir planners,” he said. “In our opinion, they exaggerated the possibility of the law (the Act to designate the Crystal) being changed (to allow intrusive federal control), the termination of private property rights,” all of which have been cited as reasons to oppose Wild and Scenic designation.

By assembling that panel of experts, Jochems said, it seemed that Gunnison County was quietly lining itself up behind the opponents of designation for the Crystal.

“I don’t think Gunnison County is going to ignore Marble” and support Wild & Scenic designation in the face of Marble’s official opposition, Jochems concluded.

He said the group of people who had supported Wild & Scenic designation of the Crystal will be meeting soon to talk about what their next steps might be.

Published in The Sopris Sun on September 8, 2016.