Saturday, June 12, 2010

Ken Salazar and ALP

Counterpunch for June 4 has a scathing indictment of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that cites his roots with the Animas-La Plata Project -- which the author also has a fun time disembowling -- as evidence of his legacy of servitude to big resource industries. 

Here's just a tasty morsel of Phillip Doe's case against Salazar from "Scapegoating Birnbaum, Saving Salazar": 

In Colorado, Ken Salazar has been an outspoken, lifelong supporter of ALP, the project American Rivers saw as threatening a river.  He supported it while Colorado Governor Roy Romer’s chief legal advisor and head of the Department of Natural Resources, then as Colorado Attorney General, then as U.S. Senator, and now as head of Interior.  He even used ALP to help propel himself into the senate seat through the spectacle of publicly kissing the ring of the lawyer who was the project godfather, of course with an adoring and uncritical press in tow.  On that occasion he declared with great humility that everything he knew about western water law he learned at the knee of the godfather.  I’m not kidding.

As for ALP, it is a shocker of a water project, even by western pork barrel standards.  It has no uses, just some laughable nonbinding scenarios for uses published in the project’s final EIS, of which 5 were written as due diligence smoke screens for this monument to mindless federal pork.  The construction costs of the project are over $600 million already, with hundreds of million more needed to move even a small portion of the water to any conceivable point of use since, at present, only a reservoir perched on a hillside exists with a complement of energy guzzling pumps needed to lift the water 500 feet from the river to the reservoir.  Billions more in interest payments will ultimately be added to the fiscal insanity since the public pays for all but a sliver of the costs.

The reservoir is fittingly named for Salazar’s predecessor in the senate, Ben Nighthorse Campbell.  He resigned from the senate while under felony investigation for influence peddling, thus opening the way for Salazar’s relentless climb.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Report from Silent Nighthorse

I met with several people from the Bureau of Reclamation on Wednesday at a meeting put together by several landowners whose property abuts BuRec land around the reservoir in Ridges Basin. The BuRec staff were helpful, and the meeting clarified and sortrf out some issues, and generated some thought on others.

In particular, the meeting addressed the fence being constructed in Ridges Basin, public access and recreation management, and motorized boating on "Campbell Reservoir."

The fence

Several of the property owners were concerned about a $442,000 fence the Bureau has recently surveyed and staked out, construction of which is set to begin later this month (June). Folks are concerned about access and wildlife effects.

The fence is three strands of high-tensile smooth wire (not barbed wire). It stands three-feet at the top, and so is considered "wildlife friendly." (Although someone at the meeting questioned that, having seen what such fences can do so horses.)

The fence will be primarily along the western side of the reservoir, from Basin Ridge to the new County Road 210 (which replaced CR211). Along CR210, areas will be fenced as needed to deter off-road travel.

The fence is rather standard operating procedure at BuRec sites. The purpose of the fence, it explained, is to deter trespass, particulary by ATVs and 4x4s, and to mark the Bureau's boundary so property owners don't "encroach" onto BuRec land.

Some at the meeting argued that the private property along the fence line would already keep people out, and that the topography there is difficult to access anyway.


The reservoir at this point is expected to allow motorboating, especially after a four-lane concrete boat ramp was constructed. BUT: Invasive mussels are an issue than can yet effect that mandate.

While at places like Vallecito, inspection stations are being employed to keep invasive species from catching rides on boats into new waters, places that are presently clean and without boating have been kept boat-free or motorless to deter invasive species.

And since "Campbell Reservoir" will be a clean body of water -- and likely good invasive mussel habitat (which is being studied now) -- that argument may be a strong one here.

Public access and recreation

This was the most interesting part to me -- the topic area that seemed to suggest the biggest opportunity to influence the future of Ridges Basin.

There is presently no public access to the BuRec land surrounding "Campbell Reservoir." And despite newspaper reports of that lasting only until the reservoir is full, there will not be public access until a land manager -- either a government agency or through private contractors -- is found and puts a recreation plan in place.

(For examples, other BuRec projects are ... Navajo Reservoir is managed by Colorado and New Mexico State Parks, Lemon Reservoir is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and Vallecito is managed by the Pine River Conservation District.)

Right now, the ALPWCD and SWWCD are taking on the task of starting to create a recreation plan. But they have little money, and seem likely to seek out private partners if no agency steps forward to fill the void. So far, all agencies have bowed out of the offer.

It seems to me that the private contractor/partner option -- enlisting companies willing to invest in recreation with an eye toward turning a profit -- is the worst-case scenario. Right behind that is Colorado State Parks, which basically run state parks as industrial-recreation cash registers.

It seems like the City of Durango and/or La Plata County could step here -- either as managers themselves, creating city or county park, or as forces pushing another agency to act. They could then perhaps be persuaded to see the marketing value of offering an alternative amenity to Durango-type vaction folks and locals: a beautiful quiet (motorless) lake and park just outside of town.

The best bet, though -- perhaps the agence most aligned to the motorless/low-development argument -- might be the Colorado Division of Wildlife. It makes sense:

- CDOW already managed the area for more than 15 years.

- The Bodo family intended the land be kept undeveloped for wildlife.

- If left motorless and undeveloped, the land would return the land (to some degree anyway) to its priceless role of being an essential wildlife sanctuary in our increasingly developed area -- which is what the Division of Wildlife is for.

- The Durango area can still reap the marketing rewards of having a lake and de-facto park for its human-powered outdoors tourist and local demographic. (And so the City and County could push for CDOW to come on board for the sake of "saving" the area.)

Conclusions (mine, I mean)

After this meeting, I've come to think that some key strategies here area

- to encourage some agency to take over the management of recreation in Ridges Basin.

- the best agency will be one predilicted toward keeping the area motorless and undeveloped.

- the CDOW might be the best choice for that, especially with the support of Durango and La Plata County.

- therefore, also push for a view of a Silent Nighthorse as a blessing, as a environmental gift, AND as a great economic marketing tool for the area!

Yucca season

A walk up the mesa-side above our house shows that even the yucca are grooving on the long-awaited Spring sunshine ...

Friday, June 4, 2010

Silent Nighthorse

Since the Durango Herald took this off its website after a week, I'm posting below the text to an opinion piece I wrote that appeared in the Sunday, May 23 edition, so people can find it and pass it on. (Note that a longer version of this essay is also on the Inside Outside website, here.)

So ... spread it around. And if you're interested in joining an email list for sharing news and information on Ridges Basin, email me at ken[at]

Silent Nighthorse:
Motorless lake could keep the wild in Ridges Basin

One night I was walking the lonely county road that used to run through Ridges Basin. It was a near-full-moon night, cold and quiet, when I saw what appeared at first to be an apparition: a square light from a dimly-lit trailer, and behind it some kind of big, bright mass swirling slowly in the meadow.

As I got closer, the scene came together: An old sheepherder’s wagon stood along the dirt road, and behind it a flock of sheep (600 head, I would soon learn) grazed in the moonlight. While I stood there in awe, in appreciation, relishing the unexpected spectacle, out of the trailer came the sheepherder himself.

The young Navajo shepherd shined his big flashlight over his charges while he told me of his task: driving the flock from La Plata, New Mexico, to Ignacio for lambing. He would cross Ridges Basin tomorrow, and push on into Ignacio a few days later.

Then came the hammer: He informed me that after 100 years, I was witnessing this outfit’s the last sheep drive through Ridges Basin. Why? Because next year the site of a new dam that would create Ridges Basin reservoir would be impassable.

"Why do they have to ruin good country?" he asked me, not really seeking answer. Because we both knew why: The Animas-La Plata water project.

Ridges Basin was good country: A wide forest-rimmed valley harboring wetlands and a perennial stream -- a rarity in this high-desert country. Just a few short miles south of downtown Durango, it was a sanctuary for both wildlife and people: a big, quiet, healthy and historic landscape close to town.

It was also until recently home to an estimated 300 mule deer and 100 elk, while as many as 1,400 of the hard-pressed animals migrated through or wintered there. In May and June, the basin served as vital elk calving grounds -- a diminishing commodity in a region where many meadows and valleys have metastasized into subdivisions and trophy homes.

Before A-LP, Ridges Basin was an amazing place. And it was supposed to stay that way.

The Bodo family, whose homes and ranch buildings still stood in the basin before AL-P's flooding, worked this land since 1914. The family gave up ranching in the 1970s, but not their love of the land. In 1974, they sold their ranch to the Nature Conservancy, with a clause in the deed: that Ridges Basin stay wild for wildlife forever. When the Nature Conservancy turned over the basin to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, creating the Bodo State Wildlife Area (read: public property owned by all Coloradoans) that clause remained intact: Forever.

Forever, that is, until 1991, when the CDOW had to deny access to the Bureau of Reclamation for testing for ALP. The Bureau then condemned 4,000 acres of the Bodo Wildlife Area -- to hell with the "public:" in public land, or the "wildlife" in Wildlife Area, or the "forever" clause the CDOW was entrusted with.

And Ridges Basin’s death sentence was issued. Today, that place where I encountered that bygone way of living will itself soon be gone, submerged under the  stagnant pool behind Ridges Basin Dam.

But ... There is still a chance to reclaim and retain some of those "forever wild" qualities to Ridges Basin. There is still a way we can resurrect the spirit and preserve some of the values and intentions of that Bodo gift.

The master planning process for the future of recreation in and around the Ridges Basin reservoir -- which now bears the marketing name "Lake Nighthorse" -- is still in its infancy, and much has yet to be determined.

In the fantasies of the industrial recreationists, Lake Nighthorse and its environs will be home to a regular Four Corners Disneyland that includes a four-lane concrete boat ramp, camping areas and facilities, and trail systems for hikers, bikers and equestrians. Just drawing up the plan for this playground is estimated to cost from $150,000 to $200,000. In 2000, the Colorado Department of State Parks estimated recreational amenities could cost upwards of $25 million -- not counting operations and maintenance.

In recent years, the Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado State Parks, La Plata County, and the City of Durango all have bowed out of the recreation-building business around Lake Nighthorse. Not to be deterred, though, in March the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District took over the development of recreation at Lake Nighthorse. The District is reported to have $50,000 available.

The view from here, then, is that either full build-out doesn't seem likely, or, if the district can find investors to help them, then it's unlikely development will be done in ways that will maintain the quiet, remote, peaceful nature that Ridges Basin has known for millennia. (Or done in ways that are free and open to the public that paid for A-LP to begin with -- see the user fees recently imposed to support recreational amenities at the Bureau of Reclamation's Vallecito Reservoir.)

So here's an idea:

Let's have a silent Nighthorse. Every other reservoir in the Four Corners has been given over to motorized boating and industrial recreation. So let's keep Ridges Basin what it has been since the last ice age, and what the Bodo family intended it to be nearly forty years ago: A nearby sanctuary for both wildlife and people.

We can save both money and an irreplaceable landscape through two stipulations on any Lake Nighthorse recreation plan: Minimal building and non-motorized uses. And we can still make it happen. The ALPWCD has won a grant from the National Park Service River and Trails program, and, with the help of a private consulting firm, is working on setting up a process for public meetings and input on the design of recreation on and around Lake Nighthorse. Look for announcements in coming months on ways to get involved and speak your mind.

There can still be a Ridges Basin that is wild. Forever. If we make it so.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Pulling out the river gear ...

At last.

Got on the river a couple of times this past weekend, finally moving the Summer (in the broad, six-month-long season sense) from the getting-the-gear-out stage to the getting-out-with-gear phase. At last!

(Read about my affection for that Spring ritual of pulling out gear in "Getting in Gear," this month's "San Juandering" column, in the June Inside Outside. )

On Saturday some friends and I took my niece and her husband on a rollicking paddle run through town. The river had peaked that morning, at 5,100 cfs. It was a wet, fast, and rockin' ride -- and my niece's husband's first-ever river trip. A good one, fer sher.

And on Monday, a slice of our river-trip tribe gathered for a duckie trip down a little-run section of our home river, paddling the Animas from Baker's Bridge to Trimble Lane. This lovely, riffly, meandering stretch features big cottonwoods, sweeping views of the redrocked upper Animas Valley and upstream toward Engineer Mountain and surrounding still-snowfielded peaks. We also passed the confluence of Hermosa Creek and the Animas.

Let Summer roll!

Read "Getting in Gear" here.

Check out some pics of the Baker's Bridge to Trimble Lane run on the Animas River here.