Congress must pass measure before plan takes effect
A plan to redraw some borders of the Curecanti National Recreation Area is nearing the halls of Congress. If the measure is approved and passed into law, the expanded area surrounding three Gunnison County reservoirs could get some special attention in an effort to improve protections for the area’s natural and cultural resources.
The final Resource Protection Study/Environmental Impact Statement (RPS/EIS) is being reviewed by the National Park Service, which administers the 41,790-acre area with the cooperation of the Bureau of Reclamation.
The statement details a no-action alternative, which leaves the boundaries as they currently are, and a preferred alternative that was chosen by the Park Service to include an additional 10,040 acres of federally owned land in the area at a cost of between $3,690,000 and $14,973,000 to the federal government.
There would also be an additional 24,300 acres of private land that would be outside the Recreation Area boundary but would be set aside for conservation and managed with the help of the Park Service. Other than having access to more area, the Recreation Area would not be managed any differently.
“Some of what we’re hoping to include will remain private land unless the landowner wants to include the land in the boundary. Our recommendation is for what we’re calling a Conservation Opportunity Area, which is really a new thing that we’re recommending to Congress,” says Dave Roberts, management assistant for Curecanti.
Congress initiated the Resource Protection Study process in 1999, more than 30 years after the Recreation Area was first established. The goal was to evaluate the natural and cultural resources in and around Curecanti and recommend ways that those resources could be better protected.
The study has now made it over a final hurdle at the regional level, and should be added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Federal Register of Notices as early as this week, starting a final 30-day public comment period, says Roberts.
When that comment period ends, the Park Service will release a Record of Decision that finalizes the alternative that was chosen and will pass the study on to Washington, where it will be prepared jointly by the Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation through the Department of the Interior and passed on to Congress for consideration.
“[The RPS/EIS] is a long and complicated process but we’re getting to the end,” says Roberts.
Areas now included in Curecanti first got federal attention when the Bureau of Reclamation began acquiring land throughout the Gunnison River basin to be used in the Aspinall Unit of the Colorado River Storage Project.
The project was a statewide effort that laid the groundwork for the construction of dams and reservoirs, including those at Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal.
“When you look at the record, [Curecanti National Recreation Area] was established for the three dams and reservoirs, but one of the purposes was for the Bureau of Reclamation to include enough land for the area to be a National Recreation Area. But the bureau only acquired the minimum amount of land for [the reservoirs],” says Roberts.
The three dams were built between 1962 and 1976 under the authority of the Bureau of Reclamation, which never increased the size of the area or presented its boundaries to Congress to be included in the Recreation Area.
“In 1965, Curecanti was recognized, but the area’s boundary has never been defined by Congress,” says Roberts. “Currently the Recreation Area consists of land within an administrative boundary that is managed through a Memorandum of Agreement by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Park Service.”
Under that agreement, the Park Service administers the land surrounding the reservoirs and the Bureau of Reclamation manages the reservoirs and associated infrastructure such as dams, power plants and roads.
According to the study, the relatively large range in the estimated one-time cost of the project is due to the variable nature of acquiring the land in the area, which can be done through purchases from willing buyers or through conservation easements.
The study also includes $160,000 to be made available annually to cover the costs of hiring two more full-time employees to help manage the 34,420 additional acres of private and public land.
Because of the timing of the study’s arrival in Washington, Roberts says there probably won’t be any action taken on the Curecanti boundary this year.
As for the probability the study will make it into law, he says, “Usually with the level of detail included in the EIS and all of the public comments, the document is well received. But there is no guarantee about how Congress will respond to it.”