By Ty Churchwell
Just eight miles from Durango’s city limits is the 107,000-acre Hermosa Creek Special Management Area and Wilderness. Enacted in 2014, the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act is the result of a community coming together for a favorite backyard playground for locals and a destination for America’s public land visitors who flock to the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado each year.
Prior to the passage of the protection act, the Hermosa Creek area was Colorado’s largest, unprotected roadless area. In 2001, when the Clinton-era Roadless Rule was contested in Colorado and elsewhere, Trout Unlimited recognized permanent protections must be sought to ensure this special public-land resource remained for future generations.
Working in partnership with the water conservation district and a local environmental non-profit, TU set out to develop, fund and convene a public working group process to discuss protections for Hermosa Creek. In 2006 the partners developed the River Protection Workgroup, ushering-in a formal effort to bring all stakeholders to the table for the discussion. All interested parties were urged to participate, and they did. For over two years, roughly 100 members of the community, representing every constituency group, met monthly with a facilitator.
The Hermosa Creek area is one of those public-land destinations coveted by a wide array of users. Simply, it has something for everyone. It is home to one of the most cherished local mountain bike trail systems, the local ski area, extensive camping opportunities, fishing, hunting, hiking, snowmobiling and OHV trails, wildflowers and stunning vistas. Each of these user groups had an equal voice with no group having a higher value than another.
For TU’s constituency — sportsmen and women — Hermosa offers healthy elk herds, deer, grouse, turkey and bear. For anglers in particular, Hermosa Creek is one of Colorado’s finest high-country trout streams. In fact, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, working in partnership with Durango-based TU, has spent the last three decades reintroducing native Colorado River cutthroat trout to the upper part of the watershed. Now completed, the program has reinstituted over 26 miles of cutthroat-only trout water for the discerning fly angler. To ensure a powerful sporting voice for the legislation, TU developed the Sportsmen for Hermosa coalition in support. The coalition represented anglers and hunters, fly shops, guides and outfitters, gear manufacturers and national sporting conservation organizations.
In the end, the River Protection Workgroup came to a consensus-based decision to seek permanent protections for the whole watershed, and draft legislation was agreed upon. Compromise was the key to success, and everyone had to give up something to get something. The legislation protected the values of each user group, without shutting anyone out, ensuring that the Hermosa Creek area would be enjoyed by future generations the way it is today.
In a time when protecting public lands via legislation seems impossible, the Hermosa Creek success shines as an example of what Trout Unlimited can accomplish when we work in collaboration with others. When we put our swords down and meet other public land users with a handshake instead, anything is possible. And, our trout will thank us for it.
Ty Churchwell Durango-based TU staffer, and the coordinator of the Sportsmen for Hermosa. For more on TU’s legacy of protection, check out our new report here.