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Canoe Conversations: Resource Planning in the Dominguez-Escalante NCA

As the BLM winds down two years of discussions over a  long-term management plan for the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, KVNF’s Travis Bubenik joined a group of area environmentalists and conservationists for a canoe-trip-meets- resource-discussion down the lower Gunnison river.

Our shuttle-driver Marty helps us unload as we gear up for a day trip from Bridgeport to Whitewater. We'll be traveling down a river corridor with rich riparian habitat, home to a fair amount of the protected Colorado Hookless Cactus, a population of Desert Bighorn Sheep and other unique wildlife and vegetation. Private agricultural lands also stretch along the riverbanks.

Janice Shepherd with the preservation group Great Old Broads for Wilderness shows me her hand-drawn map of the river, pointing to areas of private property around our put-in spot. This NCA is one of just sixteen across the nation and three in Colorado. Encompassing nearly 210 thousand acres, it’s a mixed bag of state, federal and privately-owned lands.

NCAs are unique in the world of public lands management. They're a multi-use system where sensitive biological resources are just as valuable as grazing rights, hunting and sports-shooting access, primitive recreation and cultural landmarks. The BLM recently said it would keep taking public comments on its draft Resource Management Plan through September 23rd. When its adopted, that RMP will replace two separate plans from the late 1980s that the NCA’s been working under since it was designated in 2009.

"I've been working on this plan since I started," says Andy Winsor, the BLM’s Outdoor Recreation Planner for the NCA. He says BLM plans are usually either focused on developing or conserving natural resources, but not so with this one.

"In this plan we tried to come up with a little different approach, and what we came up with was kind of a management approach with emphasis," Windsor says, explaining a few options for this new plan.

"One of our alternatives focuses on a natural processes kind of management style, so we wouldn’t be doing a lot of active stuff. One alternative, very conservation minded with a lot of active management, and then one of our alternatives was very recreation focused," he says.

With all those ideas in mind, the BLM developed its Preferred Alternative (Alternative E), which couples what the agency calls ambitious conservation goals for vegetation and habitat with an increase in acres available for grazing. But really the gist of the preferred plan is that it’s a balance between four other proposals, some primarily conservation-minded, some focused on recreation access.

Joe Neuhof of the Colorado Canyons Association is our de-facto guide for the trip. Most of the day’s conversations, had between canoes, are based around issues like recreation, cultural sites and endangered species.

Our 18-person group is comprised mostly of people concerned with maintaining the pristine feel of the NCA, environmental stewards from groups like the Conservation Center, Western Colorado Congress, and Conservation Colorado.

"The riparian corridor along the river here is by far the biggest and best-developed riparian resource in the whole NCA," says Steve Boyle, a member of the NCA's Resource Advisory Council. Boyle says human activity has affected riparian habitat along the river in a variety of ways, and so has the drying out of the West. He points to the tall Cottonwoods that give boaters one of the few shaded campsites along this stretch of the Gunnison.

"Cottonwoods need to have their feet wet all of the time," he says. "There's no way Cottonwood trees are ever going to germinate again here, because we don't have floods here anymore." Boyle says areas like these are "essentially doomed" without human management.

While most everybody on this trip agrees conservation is key, they’re also aware that managing such a large area with such a diversity of uses and resources is all about balance. Neuhof gives an example:

"If you want to see hookless cactus, this is a good place to go walk up and see it," he says. "If they’re going to do any type of trail building or activity out here for recreation, they need to consider what the impacts are on the Colorado Hookless Cactus." 

According to Katie Steele, the Chair for the NCA's Resource Advisory Council, the public has been much more involved with the future of these lands than they normally are. She says public meetings over the past two years, the kind that usually draw around five people, have seen 40 or 50  show up. That's maybe just because this NCA dips into three counties, but it's also a sign that this type of conversation strategy is gaining traction. A Friends of Northern Delores group has been formed to try and establish an NCA for that area as well.