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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

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Water Education Colorado

Concepts Collide

By John Loftis

'the greatest good for the greatest number'

A crowded raft bounces over rapids; a skier glides across a high country meadow; a fisherman stands in clear water, his line looping gracefully behind him. Such images entice tourists and natives alike to enjoy outdoor recreation in Colorado, mostly on public lands. But the simple, pure images obscure difficult conflicts in the uses of public land and water.

Other images suggest different perspectives, such as agricultural productivity or population growth: center pivot irrigators spraying rows of bright green carrots or alfalfa, or handsome new housing developments with lush lawns and flower beds. With increasing frequency and severity, recreational uses of public lands and resources conflict with industrial, agricultural, and residential uses, and sometimes even with other recreational uses.

Public land is a uniquely American idea. In the nation's early years, vast tracts of land with forests and streams seemed inexhaustible. But by the late 1800s, some foresighted individuals became concerned about the destructive consequences of free and unrestrained grazing, mining and logging. Gifford Pinchot, one of the first trained foresters in the United States, and President Theodore Roosevelt initiated the idea of setting aside land to be owned by and for the benefit of the American people and managed by a new government agency, the U.S. Forest Service.

In 1905, Pinchot became the new agency's first chief. Under his leadership, public land holdings more than tripled, to 172 million acres in 1910 from an initial 56 million. Today 36 percent of Colorado, nearly 24 million acres, is federally owned: most by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service. Other agencies have smaller holdings and the state of Colorado owns another 3.5 million acres.

Pinchot saw public land as a source of raw materials for the nation's development; he never intended it to sit idle or be used exclusively for recreation. He established the deceptively simple principles on which the Forest Service and later other agencies were to manage public lands: ‘the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.’

Another friend of Teddy Roosevelt's had a different vision for public lands. Pinchot's one time friend and later adversary John Muir valued the natural world for what it is in itself, not just as a storehouse of raw materials. The two men were initially conservation allies, but in a vocal public argument in a hotel lobby in 1897, they split irreconcilably over the issue of sheep grazing on public reserves—Muir calling sheep ‘hooved locusts.’ He also worked with President Roosevelt, who Muir persuaded to support National Park status for Yosemite in 1905.

But soon the city of San Francisco, citing the need for a steady water supply for a growing city, began planning a dam to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite, despite its national park status. Pinchot argued the benefits of a reliable water supply; Muir argued the irrevocable loss of the recreational and aesthetic value of what he believed was the loveliest area of Yosemite.

The plan was debated in newspapers nationally, most major dailies supporting Muir. After years of hearings, Congress voted for the dam in 1913, the Chiwalame River flooded the Hetch Hetchy Valley, and utility won out over the less tangible values of recreation and aesthetics. The legacy of Muir's battle was the National Parks Act of 1916, which forever protected national parks from such incursions.

But in law, Pinchot's vision would prevail. Subsequent acts of Congress defined and reasserted his principles for the Forest Service and later the Bureau of Land Management, the two largest managers of federal public lands. The Multiple-Use, Sustained-Yield act of 1960 declared that National Forests were established for ‘outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, and fish and wildlife purposes.’ In addition to recreational use, surface resources of National Forests should be managed for ‘high-level regular output of the renewable resources of the national forest without impairment of the land's productivity,’ primarily timber.

Two acts of 1976, one for the USFS under the Secretary of Agriculture and one for BLM under the Secretary of the Interior, use some identical language for the two agencies but distinguish likely uses of the two kinds of federal public land. Both reiterate the ‘multiple-use, sustainable-yield’ formula from the 1960 act, but the USFS directive now urges high yield management to meet ‘our citizens' needs in perpetuity.’ While these USFS yields are still conceived mostly as timber, BLM anticipates a wider range of uses, not all surface ones. These lands are to be managed to ‘preserve and protect certain lands in their natural condition, to provide food and habitat for fish, wildlife and domestic animals and to provide outdoor recreation and human use,’ but also ‘in a manner that recognizes the nation's need for domestic sources of minerals, food, timber and fiber.’ In its decisions, the BLM must consider ‘the relative scarcity of values involved’ and ‘weigh long-term against short-term benefits.’

Public land, with such multiple, disparate management goals, land that, after all, belongs to millions of people collectively, not technically to the U. S. government, and land that elicited competing visions in its earliest years was destined for conflicts over use. Colorado public lands, as Vince Matthews, Director of the Colorado Geological Survey notes, are rich in ‘all energy and minerals’ as well as in recreational potential. With the ‘global tightening of markets’ for these resources, he says, the world turns to Colorado to supply its needs.

The pressure to follow Pinchot's vision of resource utilization not only grows, it becomes international, and its application inevitably entails some negative impacts on the land and wildlife. And so, it elicits resistance from those more in tune with Muir's vision of recreational and aesthetic values. Mining, energy development, and water storage are cases in point.

The long history of mining on public lands probably shapes many people's views of non-recreational use. Active mining historically predates public lands as created under Teddy Roosevelt, and it had already gained preferential treatment under the Mining Act of 1872 by which ‘all valuable mineral deposits in lands belonging to the United States…are hereby declared to be free and open to exploration and purchase’ by all citizens, or those who declare their intent to become citizens. Subsequently, mining was designated the ‘best and highest’ use of public lands, thus trumping any attempt to deny mining applications for almost any reason.

Mining pollution in the West is notorious, and as illustrated by the 1991, so-called ‘Summitville disaster,’ Colorado and the West continue to live with the consequences of mining's special status. At 11,500 feet in the San Juan Mountains, surrounded by Rio Grande National Forest, open pit mining exposed naturally acidic rock to runoff, and cyanide spills from the gold leaching killed all aquatic life for miles downstream in the Alamosa River. After mine owner Galactic Resources, Ltd. declared bankruptcy in 1992, the cleanup was taken over by the EPA's Superfund and continues to this day. According to conservation and fishing organization Trout Unlimited, in the West, more than 40 percent of all headwater streams are affected, in one fashion or another, by abandoned mine runoff, and ‘[the] archaic 1872 Mining Act…gives the mining industry priority status among public land users …and doesn't do enough to require mining companies to clean up their messes, which are poisoning streams, driving big game away and impacting downstream water users.’

A newer pressure on public lands in the West is energy, specifically oil and gas, development. The BLM has recently released its second record of decision, its management plan and environmental impact statement, outlining conditions under which drilling will take place on the Roan Plateau in western Colorado, where the BLM had been ordered by the U.S. Congress to open oil and gas leasing. Because the Roan is so rich in fish, game and other recreational opportunities, vigorous opposition remains.

A coalition of sportsman's groups expressed strong opposition to Gov. Bill Ritter's decision to support energy development on the Roan Plateau: ‘These areas that could be opened for drilling are the best of the best for fish and wildlife,’ said Matt Keena of Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers in a joint press release. ‘The BLM and the industry need to hear that drilling on top of the Roan is simply unacceptable.’ Trout Unlimited's executive director David Nickum adds that TU's main concern is the fragile habitat for cutthroat trout, for which, he says, the ‘Roan deserves full protection.’

But hopes are also high for a better outcome than from earlier mining practices. Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Tyler Baskfield notes that ‘as Coloradans we have to understand that the oil and gas industry is with us for the long term, and we have to deal with it.’ While no energy development is totally without impact, Baskfield also believes we can ‘soften the blow’ on public land and its wildlife.

Vince Matthews, Colorado Geological Survey director, concurs, arguing that the multi-agency planning for the Roan drilling is a ‘wonderful example of how things ought to work.’ In fact, he says, it could be a model for the future. Because the first priority of all agencies was creating the ‘best way to protect everything,’ participating in the process was, he says, one of the most rewarding experiences of his professional career.

Baskfield points to management regulations such as ‘timing stipulations’ that keep activity out of certain areas at specified times of year, for mule deer breeding in winter or sage grouse leks in spring, for example; or property limitations that completely disallow activity in especially fragile or sensitive areas; or mandatory reclamation of drilling sites. DOW, he says, ‘is on top of this issue’ and evolving quickly in response to the challenges of mitigation. Matthews points especially to the staged leasing, which allows development of only one ridge at a time as a piece of the plan that simultaneously strengthens protection and maximizes the value of the leases to the state and federal government.

The new gold in the West is water, and a current issue starkly exemplifies the complexity of public land and resource conflicts: plans for the Cache la Poudre River. Containing Colorado's only designated wild and scenic segments, the Poudre begins in Rocky Mountain National Park, flows through Roosevelt National Forest, through the city of Fort Collins, which has purchased much of the river within its boundaries, and across the plains, where it is bordered by the Poudre Trail, a multi-use trail from Windsor to Greeley. In short, it traverses four varieties of public land, from federal to local, all heavily used for fishing, hiking, rafting, biking, skating, walking, birding, wildlife observation and more. The Poudre's water already supplies both municipalities and agriculture, and more of it is being eyed to supply increasing demand of northeastern Colorado's growing population.

The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District has proposed the Northern Integrated Supply Project to serve 15 participating municipalities. The district predicts a near tripling of demand for water by these communities, from 48,000 acre feet in 2005 to 121,500 by 2050, an increase of more than 70,000 acre feet. They plan to supply more than half—40,000—with two new reservoirs, Glade and Galeton. NCWCD spokesman Brian Werner says the new reservoirs are ‘quality of life’ issues, because in the last 20 years ‘the population of northern Colorado has doubled, while no new water storage has been built.’ He asserts the 15 participating communities have aggressive conservation programs, but conservation alone cannot meet the projected need. While he admits flows in the Poudre below Glade will be lower, he says every effort will be made to mitigate effects on the river.

Save the Poudre, an ad hoc organization opposed to NISP, disputes many of these claims. While acknowledging that minimum stream flows in the Wild and Scenic upper sections of the river will be maintained, they argue that the river below the canyon mouth will be effectively dried up. The Army Corps of Engineer's environmental impact study provides some support for this: The high-water May flow of the river will be reduced by as much as 71 percent and the already low August flow by an additional 26 percent. The May flow is especially important since it is the flushing flow that is necessary to scour the river for its long-term health. Further contradicting NISP's claims, STP asserts that the projected water needs can and should be provided through conservation, water exchanges, reuse and other creative methods. Trout Unlimited's Drew Peternell, head of the Colorado Water Project, says TU is currently ‘concerned’ about Glade, but their concerns ‘could be satisfied if Northern could assure that they will protect stream flows in the Poudre at a healthy level below Glade.’ STP's Gary Wockner characterizes this as a modern version of the Pinchot/Muir conflict, as ‘the Old West vs. the New West.’ He points out ‘entire economies are emerging around recreational and aesthetic’ uses of land and resources, in what he calls a ‘different definition of utility.’

All this brings us back to the images with which we began: rafters, skiers, fishermen—and add snowmobilers, four wheelers, hikers, and many more—on the one hand, farmers, developers ranchers, mineral and energy developers, and more on the other. Land, water, minerals, timber, and water, for use both as raw material and for recreation, are finite, and neither use has absolute legal superiority. As demand for both grows, conflicts over access to and uses of public land will undoubtedly increase. The economic raw material benefits that began in Pinchot's vision will continue to be challenged by the economic and recreational benefits that began in Muir's vision. Sustainability—doing only those things that we can do forever without destroying the very resources we use—is Pinchot's ultimate long run, and perhaps the point at which Pinchot's and Muir's visions come closest together. The idea may be a guide through the struggle to sort out the competing claims for commercial AND recreational uses of public land and resources.

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