The Crystal River valley is especially scenic in Crystal.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Thirty-nine miles of the Crystal River are already “eligible” for designation under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Now four organizations are building local support to determine if much of the river is also “suitable” for protection under the act.

Passed in 1968, the act allows local and regional communities to develop a federally backed management plan designed to preserve and protect a free-flowing river such as the Crystal River, which runs from the back of the Maroon Bells to the lower Roaring Fork River through Crystal, Marble, Redstone and Carbondale.

Wild and Scenic status, which ultimately requires an act of Congress to obtain, prevents a federal agency from approving, or funding, a new dam or reservoir on a Wild and Scenic-designated river.

And that’s one big reason why Pitkin County, the Roaring Fork Conservancy, the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) and American Rivers are exploring Wild and Scenic status for the Crystal — because it would likely block a potential dam and reservoir from being built at Placita, an old coal town between Marble and Redstone.

The Crystal River valley above Marble in the fall of 2011, looking down river toward McClure Pass and Placita.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Fighting over a potential dam

The West Divide Water Conservancy District and the Colorado River District are fighting to retain conditional water rights that could allow for a dam across the Crystal and a 4,000-acre-foot reservoir.

The river district says such a reservoir could put more water in the often parched lower Crystal River in the fall and could also provide hydropower.

But the county, CVEPA and American Rivers are actively opposing the renewal of the conditional water rights tied to the dam and a 21-day trial in district water court is scheduled for August.

In the meantime those groups, plus the Conservancy, are testing local sentiment about seeking Wild and Scenic designation.

“We want to disseminate as much information as possible to the public about the Wild and Scenic program, and then ask the folks in the Crystal River Valley if they think it is a good idea to pursue,” said Pitkin County Attorney John Ely, who leads most of the county’s water-related initiatives.

To that end, the groups held two public meetings in mid-November, one in Redstone attended by 57 people and one in Carbondale with 35 people there.

Four panelists, one from the Forest Service, one from American Rivers, and two from other organizations with experience in designating rivers as Wild and Scenic, made presentations and took questions from the crowd.

The meetings were dominated by questions about what the Wild and Scenic Act does, and maybe more importantly, what it doesn’t do.

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The act does not require, although it does allow, the Forest Service to buy land or water rights. It does not necessarily change water rights, but it could potentially lead to the government acquiring a new instream-flow water right. It does not change the underlying zoning on private land nor does it grant public access across private land.

Mike Moody of the Native Fish Society in Oregon, said at the meetings that his experience pursuing Wild and Scenic designation on the Molalla River showed him that the biggest hurdle is people’s misunderstanding of what the law means for private land interests.

The federal government is not going to come in and rezone or take private property under Wild and Scenic Act, Moody said in an interview.

He said landowners should be more concerned about changes in local zoning and land-use regulations than restrictions coming from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Still, the law does give the federal government the right to buy or condemn property in the river corridor, and it recommends that local zoning along the river should comply with the intent of the act.

What the Wild and Scenic Act does do is let the river run — by preventing federal agencies from permitting or funding “any dam, water conduit, reservoir, powerhouse, transmission line or other project,” according to its language.

It would prevent, for example, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from issuing a permit for a hydropower project on the river or along its banks.

“Some rivers need to be left alone,” said David Moryc, senior director of river protection at American Rivers, describing the underlying intent of the law, according to a summary of the meeting prepared by the Roaring Fork Conservancy.

However, the act does allow for projects on a non-designated stretch of a river otherwise protected.

That could mean, perhaps, that a dam could be allowed on the lower Crystal, a stretch the Forest Service did not find to be eligible under the Wild and Scenic Act (but still could). No such dam has ever been seriously proposed.

The law also protects the “outstanding values” in a river corridor, such as scenery, historical structures and recreational opportunities.

Designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act can also bring federal funding for river restoration projects and attract more visitors to an area.

“The intent of the act is to get people to come together to recognize the values of, and to preserve, our last free-flowing rivers,” said Kay Hopkins, a planner with the Forest Service in Glenwood Springs who offered a handout regarding the suitability process at the meetings. “And sometimes designation is the answer, and sometimes there is another tool that emerges.”

When a federal agency such as the Forest Service screens a river for “suitability” under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, it brings together local and regional stakeholders in an extensive review process that requires an environmental impact statement be prepared under the National Environmental Policy Act.

This means there is typically a range of management alternatives developed.

That’s happening today as the BLM finalizes a suitability study for the Colorado River from Gore Canyon to No Name, on the western end of Glenwood Canyon. One of the alternatives in that study is to manage the river as if it was protected by Wild and Scenic, but not seek formal designation.

“The end result is to protect the river,” Hopkins said.

However it ends, the “suitability” process takes lots of time and money.

Matt Rice, the director of conservation in Colorado for American Rivers, on the banks of the Crystal River at Placita this spring as he announced that American Rivers had put the Crystal on its annual list of endangered rivers. Now the group is pushing for Wild and Scenic designation.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

One Wild and Scenic river in Colorado

Chuck Wanner, a former Fort Collins city council member, said at the meetings that it took 10 years to get sections of the Cache La Poudre River on the Eastern Slope designated under Wild and Scenic.

Today, that’s the only river in the state that carries the designation and no river in the vast Colorado River basin is officially Wild and Scenic.

When asked about that via email, Ely of Pitkin County said he thought Colorado had only one designated river because of the “lack of information as to the benefits and restrictions of the designation, and the time and dedication it takes to get it through Congress.”

Another reason may be that once a river is designated Wild and Scenic, the federal government becomes a stakeholder on the river and has a chance to review potential changes to it, such as any new water rights. Some may feel that Colorado water law is complicated enough already.

And then there is the fact that designation eliminates the possibility of federal funding for future water projects, which can dampen the enthusiasm of most cities, counties and water districts.

Whatever the reasons for scarcity in Colorado, Pitkin County is ready to lead a Wild and Scenic process for the Crystal River.

“I think the Crystal has the potential to be a nice clean straightforward effort because there are no out-of-basin uses yet,” Ely wrote. “If there is interest in going forward, we’re happy to be the laboring oar and do that work.”

The county has a property tax in place that generates about $1 million per year for river protection and restoration and is managed by the county’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board.

Without such encouragement and support from the county, the Forest Service is not slated to review the Crystal River for suitability until it updates the forest plan for the White River National Forest, which is at least five years away.

There is also a more direct route, which is to go straight to Congress. But it is nearly impossible to pass a designating bill there if there is local organized opposition to Wild and Scenic.

So gauging local public sentiment is important, and so far, so good, at least from the point of view of Sharon Clarke, a conservation specialist at the Roaring Fork Conservancy.

“I thought they were great meetings,” Clarke said, noting that the comments made at the Redstone meeting were “almost 100 percent positive.”

Matt Rice, the director of conservation in Colorado for American Rivers, was also upbeat about the meeting in Redstone.

“We had a good dialogue,” Rice said. “But certainly there is work to be done by the groups that are exploring the possibility.”

Clarke did note, however, that there were a few questions in Carbondale about the potential value of a dam and reservoir at Placita, as it could put more late-season water into the lower Crystal which suffers today from low flows due to large irrigation diversions that start below Avalanche Creek.

Martha Moore, a public affairs specialist with the Colorado River District, attended the Wild and Scenic meeting in Redstone on Nov. 14, but she did not comment.

Jim Pokrandt, a spokesman for River District, acknowledged that the district would typically be an active stakeholder in a Wild and Scenic process within its jurisdiction.

But he said the ongoing lawsuit over the conditional water rights for the potential Placita dam currently prevents that.

With blocks of quarried marble behind them on the far bank, two boaters pause before ending their run at the Avalanche Creek put-in and take-out spot. This spring brought unusually low flows, but the free-flowing Crystal River often serves up big, cold and intense whitewater as it runs through its narrow and beautiful river valley.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Classification, then values

The Forest Service studied the Crystal River for eligibility as part of the 2002 forest plan for the White River National Forest.

A river needs to be “free-flowing” to be eligible, “without impoundment, diversion, straightening, rip-rapping, or other modifications” of the waterway, according to the act. But the existence of low dams or diversion structures does not automatically disqualify a river from designation.

The Crystal is one of the last rivers in Colorado without a dam across it, so it qualified in that regard.

Another task for the Forest Service was to classify sections of the river based on how much land use and development has occurred within a quarter mile of its banks.

Since most of the North Fork of the Crystal runs through the pristine Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, beginning in the lush Fravert Basin, that seven-mile section was appropriate to be classified as “wild.”

According to the law, such a river is “free of impoundments,” “generally inaccessible except by trail,” and “represents vestiges of primitive America.”

One benefit a Wild and Scenic designation could bring to this stretch is a greater level of protection of the water in the river than the current wilderness rules, Hopkins said.

“When it comes to water, it could benefit,” she said.

The land along the South Fork of the Crystal, which begins near Schofield Pass and joins the North Fork at the old town of Crystal, is largely undeveloped with only a few dirt roads.

That 10 miles of river was classified as “scenic,” although the classification is not about the area’s mind-blowing scenery, but about a higher level of development than a “wild” section. Such a river has a watershed that is still “largely primitive” but “accessible in places by roads.”

And finally, the 20-mile stretch of the river from above Marble to about 5 miles below Redstone, was classified as “recreational.”

Again, the classification is not because there are quality recreational opportunities along that stretch — although there are — but to signify that the river corridor is more highly developed than a “scenic” area.

Rivers classified as “recreational” can be “readily accessible by road or railroad,” and “may have some development along their shorelines.”

Highway 133 runs right along the Crystal River throughout most of this section, which also includes a number of riverside homes.

After classifying the various sections of the Crystal, the Forest Service then identified the “outstanding resource values” in the overall river basin, with an emphasis on the values also recognized by other entities.

For example, the Redstone Castle is on the National Register of Historic Places and the marble quarries in Marble are of historical importance, so it was determined there are outstanding historical values in the area.

Highway 133 is a state Scenic Byway, and the scenic values in most of the beautiful area are obvious.

And there is a long list of recreational options along the river, including some of the most intense whitewater boating in Colorado.

Today, the Forest Service is required to manage its land along the Crystal in a manner that does not detract from any of these “resource values.”

But without formal designation under the Wild and Scenic Act, at some point that administrative posture could change.

That’s why Pitkin County and the three other groups are exploring designation today.

Clarke, of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, said a conference call with other organizers would be held soon to determine the next steps in the local process.

“We will keep beating the bushes to find out what people’s concerns may be, but until there is some reason not to go forward, we will keep going,” she said.

The Crystal River, flowing near Avalanche Creek toward Carbondale.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Not first try at Wild and Scenic for the Crystal

This is not the first time an effort has been made to obtain Wild and Scenic status for the Crystal River.

The Bureau of Land Management prepared a feasibility study in 1982 and in 1986 members of the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) held meetings to advance the idea.

However, there was fierce opposition from local ranchers in the Crystal River Valley.

Gregory Durrett of Redstone, a member of CVEPA, remembers some “brutal” meetings on the topic at the Carbondale library where local ranchers spoke out in fierce opposition to the idea, saying it would amount to a taking of private land.

“The effort collapsed under that barrage,” Durrett said.

He said that the late rancher Bill Perry was perhaps the most opposed, but that there was also opposition from ranchers in Gunnison County, where Marble is located.

Bill Jochems, another member of CVEPA, said that if you take the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act at face value, it “authorizes all sorts of federal controls over land use, and so it looked pretty darn scary” to some people.

“But we never had anyone come here and tell us about the various ways it can be enacted or applied,” Jochems said.

Today, he said people have a better understanding that the designation can be tailored to meet the desires of local communities.

“They were just worn out by determined opposition, but this was without the benefit of what we know today,” Jochems said about the earlier effort.

Durrett said today people in the Crystal might well look differently at the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

“Most people in the Crystal River took for granted tourism in the past, and now they are scratching for something that will help,” he said.

An upstream view of the Crystal River from the Placita area this spring.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Is Colorado getting more Wild and Scenic?

While today only the Cache la Poudre River has stretches that are designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the BLM is preparing a suitability study on a number of area river stretches.

A final EIS is expected to be released in early 2013 by the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office followed by a record of decision in 2014 for the following rivers and river sections:

• Abrams Creek

• Battlement Creek

• Colorado River — State Bridge to Dotsero

• Colorado River — Glenwood Canyon to approximately 1-mile east of No Name Creek

• Deep Creek — From the BLM/Forest Service land boundary to the Deep Creek ditch diversion

• Deep Creek — From the Deep Creek ditch diversion to the BLM/private land boundary

• Eagle River

• Egeria Creek

• Hack Creek

• Mitchell Creek

• No Name Creek

• Rock Creek

• Thompson Creek

• East Middle Fork Parachute Creek Complex

• East Fork Parachute Creek Complex

There is more information regarding Wild and Scenic suitability on these rivers in the “Colorado River Valley Draft Resource Management Plan” from the BLM.

The BLM is also reviewing a number of stretches on major rivers in Colorado, either for eligibility or suitability, including:

• Animas River

• Dolores River

• San Miguel River

• Gunnison River

• Colorado River

• Blue River

In all, according to Deanna Masteron, a public affairs specialist with the BLM in Lakewood, the BLM is currently analyzing more than 100 segments in Colorado through various land-use plans. The Forest Service also has the ability to analyze rivers for Wild and Scenic designation.

Editor’s note: This story was done in collaboration with the Aspen Daily News, which published it on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2012.

Crystal in Feb 2011
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...