Editor’s note: This is the final part of a three-part series on the Curecanti Legislation in the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act.
BY BRUCE NOBLE
The agreement that created the Curecanti National Recreation Area in 1965 was signed by three interesting men. One of the most important was the renowned conservationist and interior minister Stewart Udall. Among other things, Udall stood alongside President Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House when the Wilderness Act was incorporated into law in 1964. Another signatory to the Curecanti Agreement was George Hartzog, a man who loved the National Park Service but ruled the country with an iron hand as director. Finally, the agreement includes the signing of the Director of the Bureau of Reclamation, Floyd Dominy. Dominy was both a dedicated dam builder and a notorious womanizer who would not have fared well in the era of the Me Too movement. (Dominy’s notable and shameful antics are well documented in John McPhee’s “Conversations with the Archdruid” and Mark Reisner’s “Cadillac Desert.”)
While it’s a shame it took Congress 56 years to legislate to approve the Curecanti National Recreation Area, the truth is that the 1965 agreement worked pretty well. In short, the Bureau of Reclamation manages the water in the three Curecanti reservoirs and the National Park Service manages recreation on and around these waters. None of this will change when the CORE law is passed and Curecanti is officially legal.
The mandate may be simple, but the work is not. The Bureau of Reclamation must manage the water supply for downstream irrigation equipment, ensure peak currents through the Black Canyon during the spring runoff season, and hold enough water in the Gunnison River to provide habitat for endangered fish. The National Park Service has to accommodate one million visitors a year through two large marinas, hundreds of campsites, a large visitor center (due to be fully renovated soon), and intricate tour boat operations at Morrow Point Reservoir during the summer months. None of this is easy, but it happens through the hard work and collaboration of dedicated professionals in two government agencies.
Why is legislation so important to Curecanti? First and foremost, it is difficult to operate without clearly defined and legally defensible boundaries. The current “boundaries” as they are consist only of the land reserved for the reservoir projects. That may work for the Bureau of Reclamation, but the National Park Service has a broader portfolio of natural and cultural resource management that requires more specificity in terms of boundaries.
In addition, both agencies need to have a clear understanding of who owns what in Curecanti. This dilemma is probably best illustrated in Cimarron, the third most visited place in the Curecanti National Recreation Area. Once a thriving cattle stop in the heyday of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, Cimarron is now the access point to Morrow Point Dam, where impressive historic railroad cars are on display, an access point to a hiking trail, and a place to set up a small boat for those intrepid souls trying to reach the crystal reservoir. Unfortunately, the directional signs (i.e. educational signs) and other infrastructures at a beautiful river view are poorly maintained as the two agencies have failed to reach an agreement on ownership of these assets. This is just one example of a confusing ownership situation at Curecanti that is detrimental to visitors. It has to end.
Fortunately, Section 402 of the Curecanti legislation, which is embedded in the CORE Act, allows the directors of the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service to enter into management agreements. A management agreement would be a great place to sort out the ownership issues that exist between the two agencies. I would feel even better if section 402 was expanded to include language that states that agencies must resolve these property issues related to cantilever signage. In either case, there seems to be a way forward that will make it possible to correct these ownership issues in a way that will make both agencies run efficiently and for the benefit of visitors.
In the end, legislation that promotes the efficiency of the federal government may seem like a contradiction. I assure you this is not the case. More efficient government operations save money for taxpayers. The Curecanti legislation will be a “win” for both taxpayers and the government.
Thank you to Congressmen Neguse and Sens. Bennet and Hickenlooper for your support of the CORE Act. Let’s get it down on the floor of the Senate, goodbye, and send it to the President for signature asap. The CORE law has been reviewed and re-examined for more than a decade. In fast-growing Colorado, it’s time to tick old businesses off the list before we move on to other pressing public land issues for our state. The time for the CORE Act is now.
Bruce Noble retired after 33 years with the National Park Service. Most recently he was superintendent for the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park and the Curecanti National Recreation Area near Gunnison. He lives in Grand Junction.