It’s an alphabet soup of acronyms: ACEC, NCA, BLM, SJCA.

Beneath the dry crust of jargon lies an ongoing struggle between and among local stakeholders and federal agencies over the fate of the Dolores River. 

The federal Bureau of Land Management announced March 4 that it was soliciting public comment about the possibility of establishing Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, or ACEC, designation in 18 areas in southwest Colorado. 

Conservation groups and local governments — including San Miguel, Dolores and Montezuma counties — weren’t pleased with the news. 

They say the BLM’s announcement was poorly timed and could jeopardize their years-long negotiations for legislation protecting parts of the Dolores River while respecting the concerns of private landowners in the area. 

The BLM contends local groups have known about these ACECs since at least 2007, and that the timing of its announcement was simply coincidental, the result of the unpredictability of the federal bureaucracy.

Yet members of these groups aren’t so sure. 

“To have the BLM out of the complete blue say suddenly they’re going to impose ACECs on some of the same property we’ve been negotiating over for 6, 7, 8 years…That was really disturbing,” San Miguel County Commissioner Art Goodtimes said. “I want to chastise the BLM. This is the third or fourth instance of them making a decision — without notifying people — that has been potentially damaging to their ongoing efforts.”

San Miguel, Dolores and Montezuma counties, along with the environmental nonprofit San Juan Citizens Alliance, private landowners and other stakeholders, have been working for several years on possible legislation to protect portions of the Dolores River. They say they were getting close to a deal that satisfied, or at least didn’t offend, both sides of the environmentalist/land-user coin, and that the BLM’s announcement could stall that work. 

BLM Tres Rios Field Office Manager Connie Clementson countered that the groups’ disgruntlement with the BLM’s alleged “poor timing” could have something to do with faulty memories: “One of the things that can happen when things take a lot of time is people forget about them.” 

For example, Clementson said, the ACECs were first mentioned in the 2007 draft resource management plan for the region (if not before) and then again in 2013. She said she’s been reminding each of the county commissions of the pending ACEC amendments in quarterly updates for four years. She said she again informed the counties and community groups in early 2015 when she initiated the process to have the ACECs published in the Federal Register.  

“We had about three days’ notice. We were told on a Tuesday that it was going to be in the Federal Register on Friday,” she said. “I guess people felt like it was a surprise because they had forgotten that we had been telling them for a long time this was going to happen.”

The proposed ACECs deemed relevant and important are Anasazi Culture/Mud Springs, Cement Creek, Cinnamon Pass, Coyote Wash, Disappointment Valley, Dry Creek Basin, Dolores River Canyon (Slick Rock to Bedrock), Grassy Hills, Gypsum Valley, Lake Como, McIntyre Canyon, Mesa Verde Entrance, Muleshoe Bench, Northdale, Silvey’s Pocket, Slick Rock, Snaggletooth and Spring Creek.

Among all the talk about the intricacies of how to protect the Dolores River, the purpose of preserving parts of the river can get lost.

“The set of canyons and valleys the river incises and crosses as it meanders in its somewhat-odd northwesterly trajectory are home to a diversity of habitats that spread from riverine otters to gypsum-soil loving plants to towering old growth Ponderosa pine and more,” said Jimbo Buickerood, Lands and Forest Protection Program Manager for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “In sum the Dolores River is truly a unique river with a special character that charms its human visitors whether they fly fish its headwaters or are challenged by the significant rapids throughout the river corridor, as well as providing critical habitat to an immense array of animal and vegetative species across the amazing 9,000 foot altitudinal drop of its watershed.”

Some local stakeholders acknowledged they should have been paying more attention to the imminent ACEC announcement.

“It kind of did (take us by surprise), and it shouldn’t have,” Montezuma County Natural Resources and Public Lands Coordinator James Dietrich said. “The BLM planning process has gone on for so long. When they tell you at the beginning of the process that 11 years later you’re supposed to remember it, everybody has the responsibility to keep up.”

The local groups have mostly been working on legislation to establish a National Conservation Area, or NCA, along parts of the Dolores. Those negotiations won’t stop, according to Marsha Porter-Norton, who has been facilitating the negotiations. 

“The NCA is by no means going away because of this ACEC proposal,” she said. 

Ernie Williams, a Dolores County commissioner who has been central to the NCA negotiations, agreed that discussions would continue. 

“We’ve been working on this thing for years. We still plan on moving forward, but we don’t know what the fallout (from the BLM’s announcement) is going to be yet,” he said. 

According to Williams and others at the local level, an NCA designation is more flexible than an ACEC because it allows local communities to tailor the designation to their own needs. 

“An NCA crafted locally is a much better fit for the communities. You get some of the nuances figured out that you might not get” with another designation, said Buickerood, of the SJCA. “With a lot of local involvement on this, we can really craft something that works well for local communities.”

Environmentalists aren’t the only ones involved in the negotiations. Indeed, the talks involve a balancing act between many, occasionally competing interests: local governments, private landowners, ranchers, recreational river users and those who rely on the lands adjacent to the river to make a living. 

Williams, the Dolores County commissioner, said private landowners were already concerned about the prospect of an NCA designation, but that the announcement of possible ACECs has them even more worried, and this hampers his ability to negotiate. Williams and Dietrich, of Montezuma County, pointed out that Canyons of the Ancients National Monument near Cortez had once been an ACEC before being designated a national monument, and that private landowners were therefore worried about what new ACEC designations might mean for their grazing, water and property rights: some envision ACECs along the Dolores as a first step toward a national monument. 

“We were working with the landowners within the Dolores River corridor trying to get the best answers for private land, then (the BLM announcement) comes out two weeks later and they felt like they got pressure put on them by the BLM,” Williams said. 

Along with most of his local colleagues across the political spectrum, Williams would like to see the river protected by an NCA crafted by local interests.

“An NCA is put together with local people, local conservation groups, local landowners, local governments,” Williams said. “A (national monument) is a stroke of a pen out of Washington, D.C.”

Southwest Colorado’s representative in Congress, Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, agrees that preservation of the Dolores River should come from the bottom up, rather than as a national monument declaration from the White House. Through a spokesperson, Rep. Tipton said he “strenuously opposes” a national monument designation for the area.

“Any Congressional designation of either segments or the entire Dolores River that would change the status quo will start with all stakeholders on the ground reaching a consensus about what the designation would look like, and how the area would be managed going forward,” Tipton spokesperson Ryan Shucard wrote in an email. “The discussion amongst stakeholders should be allowed to continue until its conclusion, at which time a decision can be made about how best to move forward.”

For the time being, NCA negotiations among local groups and leaders will continue in parallel with, yet separate from, the current ACEC comment period. (The original deadline for comments on the ACECs was April 4, but counties asked for, and received, an extension until May 4. Both Dolores and Montezuma counties are currently working on letters opposing the ACEC designations.)

Clementson, the BLM field office manager, agreed that the ACEC and NCA processes were independent, and that one does not preclude the other. She offered to discuss the BLM’s position with the local groups, and to provide information on the proposed ACECs to anyone interested. 

“In a lot of ways, everybody is trying to achieve the same objective, but maybe taking different approaches,” Dietrich said. “It’s a matter of getting everyone on the same page.”