Package would officially designate area’s boundary
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Sen. Michael Bennet discusses with local dignitaries the need to establish a boundary for Curecanti National Recreation Area during a visit to Gunnison County in 2011. This week, Bennet introduced legislation to do just that.
Sen. Michael Bennet discusses with local dignitaries the need to establish a boundary for Curecanti National Recreation Area during a visit to Gunnison County in 2011. This week, Bennet introduced legislation to do just that.

Lands west of Gunnison that have never officially been designated by an act of Congress would receive a formal boundary as part of a monumental package of proposed legislation introduced this week by Democratic federal lawmakers.

The Curecanti National Recreation Area Boundary Establishment Act would place management of the 50,667-acre Curecanti National Recreation Area under the sole direction of the National Park Service (NPS).

Yet, the Curecanti bill is just one of four that comprise the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and freshman Congressman Joe Neguse. CORE would protect approximately 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado.

The 82-page, four-piece package of bills also includes the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act; San Juan Mountain Wilderness Act; and Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness and Camp Hale Legacy Act.

Of the land sought for protection, about 73,000 acres are new wilderness areas, and nearly 80,000 acres are new recreation and conservation management areas that preserve existing outdoor uses, such as hiking and mountain biking.

Bennet has noted that not since 1993, when Congress passed the Colorado Wilderness Act, has this much Colorado land been preserved at once.

Curecanti has been comanaged by the Bureau of Reclamation and the NPS since 1965, when Blue Mesa dam was completed and the reservoir was filled. In 1999, Congress requested that NPS conduct a study to evaluate formal establishment of Curecanti as a National Recreation Area. The Final Environmental Impact Statement on the area was completed in 2008 and a report summarizing recommendations was presented to Congress in 2009.

However, past efforts to formally designate Curecanti have not been met with success despite calls locally for congressional designation in hopes that NPS would be more willing to invest money in the popular recreation area.

Particularly important to anglers is a provision of the Curecanti bill which would require the Interior Department to fulfill its obligation of acquiring 26 miles of public fishing easements to compensate for the loss of access resulting from the construction of the Aspinall Unit, including Blue Mesa Reservoir. Interior would be tasked with inventorying how many miles have already been acquired and developing a plan within one year of the bill’s passage for acquiring the remainder of mileage.

“I know a lot of local anglers would be pretty thrilled to see 26 miles of access down there,” said Scott Willoughby, Colorado field coordinator for Trout Unlimited.

However, there’s currently disagreement about how many miles of easement have been acquired. For that reason, Gunnison County Commissioner John Messner welcomes the analysis and plan for mitigating impacts from construction of the Aspinall Unit which the bill would require.

“This is why we need a memorialization and inventory of what’s been done,” he said. “It was important to me to see that the BOR followed through with that.”

According to the lawmakers, Colorado counties, businesses, recreation groups, sportsmen and conservationists helped write each element of the CORE Act over the last decade.

Also of note locally, the Thompson Divide bill would ensure that no future oil, gas or mining development occurs on the 200,000-acre swath of land which includes a portion of northern Gunnison County. The bill seeks to protect historic ranching and agriculture, outdoor recreation opportunities, and the state’s largest intact aspen grove along Kebler Pass.

Messner also welcomed coal mine methane provisions in the CORE Act’s Thompson Divide bill — language which would enable a solution for leasing and support utilization of the gas.

The bill would create a program to lease and generate energy from excess methane in existing or abandoned coal mines in the North Fork Valley — an effort intended to both support the local economy and help address climate change.

 

(Will Shoemaker can be reached at 970.641.1414 or editor@gunnisontimes.com.)