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NCA Discussion in Conejos County & Dolores River NCA Update

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Article by: Anna Lee Vargas (SLVEC Project Manager) Date: October 12, 2023

Potential National Conservation Area Designations for Colorado

On Thursday, September 28th, the Conejos Community held its second discussion regarding consideration of a potential National Conservation Area (NCA) designation. There was a meal catered by Casita de Rivera and enjoyed by over 40 attendees, mostly from the ranching community, Mr. Aaron Abeya opened up the panel discussion with a

poem from his book Colcha, for which Abeyta received an American Book Award and the Colorado Book Award. It reminded everyone of the roots of their ancestors and honoring their place within the landscape, which shares a living history of 11,000 years.

Accompanying Abeyta was a panel made up of grazing permittees, George Whitten, a representative currently sitting on the Colorado Agricultural Commission; Eric Valencia, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Manager for the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument (RGDNM); and J.D. Schmidt, a sheep herder who has permits on BLM lands and also grazes on National Wildlife Refuges, which require maintenance of high land health standards. The panel answered questions about their experiences running livestock on BLM Public lands, before and after designations.

Mr. Valencia, BLM Manager, (RGDNM) answered questions directly related to the RGDNM designation and if the area had received additional funding and management capabilities, such as in the form of law enforcement for the area. He explained that three new officers were hired and believes it is making a difference for permittees. Mr. Valencia also spoke about how excited he was that “the RGDNM was designated to protect all traditional uses for future generations.” He said the community needs to think about opportunities for the next generation and be willing to remain open minded about the possibilities.

Panelist Aaron Abeyta spoke about when he was young and watching his father give mouth to mouth to a young sheep to save its life. He learned that day how important ranching was to his family. Abeyta, representing his families operation, who also possess grazing permits on the RGDNM, said that since the designation in 2012-(10 years), “they haven’t really noticed much of a difference”, in terms of grazing plan changes, but offered “overall, there has been less property theft”.

Panelist George Whitten spoke about how important land health and water are to the ranchers and the ranching community. Panelist JD Schmidt talked about his concerns with different designations, “what will be the benefit for us?” but also emphasized that working together collaboratively could mitigate some of those concerns. He also has special concerns about wildlife and the impacts to wildlife with an NCA designation.

Q & A followed the panel discussion with good questions and comments from the Conejos community.

There was some explanation given about the difference between a National Monument and NCA Designation. A National Monument is designated through Presidential proclamation; whereas a National Conservation Area (NCA) has to be legislated through Congress, which requires local participation and support, usually starting with local towns, businesses and municipalities. These entities provide supporting resolutions that are presented to County Commissioners; who then request legislative support through their congressional representatives.

Everyone voiced concerns about the increase in recreation that will come with an NCA designation, impacts to wildlife, and how that activity would be mitigated. It was made clear that recreation planning is critical to the overall socio-economic health for the area.

The meeting was recorded by Doug Beechwood, who is also covering presentations about Holistic Resource Management and Alan Savory’s methods of restoring native grasses using cattle/herd animals as a tool for restoration. That video will become available and San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC), who provided organizational support for the meeting, will make the video available on our website and send out an announcement, once it is completed. Another meeting, likely focusing on recreation impact and ways to mitigate that impact, will be held in December, stay tuned.

The Dolores River National Conservation Area proposed legislation (from Senator Bennet's office)

After nearly two decades of local discussion and collaboration on the Dolores River and at the request of Dolores, Montezuma, and San Miguel Counties, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, the local cattle rancher, and conservation groups, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet introduced legislation to designate a National Conservation Area (NCA) for a portion of the Dolores River Corridor within the counties. This bill would protect over 68,000 acres of public lands in Colorado.

A proposed NCA spanning four counties (Montezuma, Dolores, San Miguel, and Montrose) along the Dolores River from below McPhee Dam to Bedrock has been discussed for many years. In 2008 the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management requested that the Dolores River Dialogue--a coalition of diverse interests in the region--convene a broad-based community group, which became the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group. The group was charged with studying pressing management issues in the Dolores River corridor from McPhee to Bedrock, including the possibility of a Wild and Scenic River federal designation. The working group, through consensus agreement, decided to explore the possibility of an NCA and appointed a Legislative Subcommittee, including counties, water managers, conservation groups, landowners, recreationists, energy companies, and staff from federal elected officials’ offices, to draft a legislative proposal for further vetting. Bennet's legislation is a result of this collaborative process.

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