“In what may become a Christmas miracle, Congress is poised to actually pass a land protection measure” — Bob Berwyn

From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):

In what may become a Christmas miracle, Congress is poised to actually pass a land protection measure before the end of the session. Lawmakers this week said they reached a compromise on a bill to protect the Hermosa Creek watershed near Durango.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Colorado elected officials are hoping that in an era of gridlock in Washington, a lame-duck Congress can actually get some legislation passed — and even rarer yet, a bill designating new wilderness.

A bill to protect the Hermosa Creek watershed in the San Juan National Forest north of Durango cleared the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with bipartisan support Thursday after an agreement on new language was brokered between southwest Colorado communities, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., and U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, D-Colo.

The measure would designate 70,650 acres as the Hermosa Creek Special Management Area and about 38,000 acres of the watershed as wilderness. It also takes action to preserve historic snowmobiling use in the Molas Pass area.

While it has yet to clear the full House or Senate, its backers are hopeful.

“We’re pushing to try to get it through this year,” said Tipton spokesman Josh Green. “We are optimistic because this bill does reflect pretty diverse local interests.”

Tipton and Bennet have been carrying companion House and Senate bills. Udall, who is about to leave the Senate after losing to U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner in this month’s election, is a bill cosponsor and a member of the committee that acted Thursday, and he spoke on behalf of it before voting for it.

Tipton said in a news release, “As we worked through the legislative process some of the language in the initial draft of the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act needed to be clarified to ensure that the community’s goals would be carried out, without the risk of misinterpretation by federal agencies once the bill became law. We are now able to move forward a version of the bill that has the best chance of advancing through both the House and Senate thanks to the hard work and willingness of local stakeholders to come together and compromise.”

The measure would divide a wilderness study area at Molas Pass roughly in half, creating a recreation area that continues to allow the snowmobiling that has long occurred there, while keeping the rest as a wilderness study area. Green said one of the revisions to the legislation clarifies that snowmobiling access will continue in the newly created recreation area and not be subject to the future whims of management agencies.

Bennet spokesman Philip Clelland said the measure may be included in a package of bills for Congress to act on before the year’s end.

Few wilderness measures have passed in recent years, but Clelland said Bennet thinks the measure has a good chance.

“The updated bill and (Thursday’s) vote are solid bipartisan breakthroughs that give the bill momentum. Sometimes, the biggest action on lands bills can happen during lame-duck sessions,” Clelland said.

More Hermosa Creek coverage and here.

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