The River of Sorrows could see increased protection with federal legislation as a survey shows growing support for a national monument around Colorado’s pristine Dolores River Canyon Country
May 1, 2023
BEDROCK — This month’s swirling flow in the Dolores River is mostly snowmelt from the Disappointment Creek basin that drains almost 350 square miles of the western San Juans before joining the meandering Dolores through miles of dramatic Wingate Sandstone canyon.
So … disappointment feeds the River of Sorrows.
“Sounds like someone had a bad time down here,” says Rica Fulton, the advocacy and stewardship director for Dolores River Boating Advocates, jesting from her bobbing boat deep in the Dolores Canyon.
“Kinda hard to imagine right now, isn’t it?” says moviemaker and longtime Dolores River advocate Cody Perry, manning the oars of the raft as he and Fulton, his wife, bask in the shadows and light dancing on 1,100-foot red sandstone cliffs.
Hard times are common for the Dolores River, where dwindling water supplies in a warming climate offer only feeble leftovers for almost 200 miles of river canyon below McPhee Reservoir. But this winter’s bountiful snowpack is expected to float thousands of boats on the river that rarely sees navigable flows. The Dolores River’s expected deluge of rubber-riding boaters is fueling momentum from more than 40 years of collaboration and advocacy to safeguard one of the state’s last unprotected expanses of public wildlands around the so-called River of Sorrows.
There are two pieces of legislation from Colorado’s federal lawmakers — an unlikely pairing of Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert and Democratic U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper — vying to establish a new conservation area on the upper section of the river. A new movie by Perry — “The River of Sorrows” — is touring the state with dramatic visuals of the barely trickling Dolores last year.
And there’s a new proposal to establish a national monument on the Dolores River as it moves through Dolores, Montezuma, San Miguel, Montrose and Mesa counties before meeting the Colorado River in Utah.
“We are seeing local and broad support for landscape-scale protection,” said Scott Braden, whose Colorado Wildlands Project supports the proposed National Conservation Area legislation that protects 68,000 acres around the Lower Dolores. “We did the polling because we want something bigger.”
Many residents in western Colorado also want something bigger. The Colorado Wildlands Project enlisted Keating Research to survey residents in five western Colorado counties: Dolores, Mesa, Montezuma, Montrose and San Miguel. The March survey of 750 voters — 450 in those counties and 300 inside the state’s 3rd Congressional District represented by Boebert — shows a strong majority supporting a new national monument across the entirety of the 184-mile river, covering more than 500,000 acres.
When voters were given details of a possible Dolores River Canyon County National Monument — protecting red rock canyons, ancient ponderosa forests, desert wilderness and the entire watershed — 75% of residents in the 3rd Congressional District and 73% of residents in the five counties supported the designation.
“This is a unique, popular thing that you rarely see: an issue that is commonly supported across such a broad spectrum especially among people who maybe don’t agree on other issues,” Jake Martin with Keating Research said.
Braden said the support for the monument reveals a growing call to better protect water, wildlife and wildlands in Colorado, regardless of political affiliation.
National Conservation Area legislation
There is a vibrant history of uranium mining around the Dolores River in the West End of Montrose County and any protections that could interfere with mining uranium and vanadium in the 70-mile Uravan mineral belt would be contentious. (The monument proposal, while still only an idea, steers clear of any implications for existing mines in the region and proposed National Conservation Area legislation along the river would allow existing permit holders to operate.)
The West End was a key player in the Cold War as the U.S ramped up its nuclear arsenal, fueling a short boom for the rural economy as dozens of mines churned out uranium for nuclear bombs and power. The uranium boom still lingers in the minds of hardscrabble locals in the region who are keen to see a spike in uranium prices that might revive a long-dormant mining economy.
The legislation proposed this year by Bennet and Hickenlooper in the Senate and Boebert in the House — her largest public lands protection bill — would protect more than 68,000 acres along the Dolores River from McPhee Dam to the Montrose County line at the Big Gypsum Valley, where the river enters the Bureau of Land Management’s 30,000-acre Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area established in 1980.
The National Conservation Area plan originally had support from Dolores, Montezuma, Montrose and San Miguel counties as well as the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. (The legislation’s 68,000 acres of proposed protection do not include any of the Dolores River canyonlands in Montrose or Mesa counties.) Then Montrose and Montezuma counties dropped out. Then Montezuma rejoined as the legislation was negotiated and adjusted, per Bennet’s focus on consensus when crafting public lands legislation like his CORE Act.
The legislation does not impact the complicated web of water rights connected to the McPhee Dam, which altered the flow of the Dolores River when it was built as a storage reservoir to irrigate some 61,000 acres in southwestern Colorado. The proposed conservation legislation prevents any more new dams or mines and creates a roadless area in Ponderosa Gorge to be managed “in a manner that maintains the wilderness character” of the remote chasm with massive ponderosa trees.