U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, was brought up to speed on issues at Sage Hen and House Creek during a tour Friday with Montezuma County and San Juan National Forest Service officials.
Tipton saw firsthand how the invasive mussel threat at McPhee Reservoir is limiting access, and heard about budget issues preventing expanding the boat inspection program.
“We’re doing everything in our power to prevent these mussels from getting in our main water source,” said Keenan Ertel, Montezuma County commissioner. “If they get in, you can’t get rid of them, and the damage they cause to irrigation equipment will harm the economy of the entire valley.”
This summer, lake officials only allowed motorized boat launches at the McPhee and House Creek boat ramps that have inspection stations. At Sage Hen and Dolores entry points, boulders and gates placed to block motorized access.
“It’s a different way to operate our reservoir, but we have no choice,” Ertel told Tipton. “Hopefully the public understands the danger of this mussel on our waterways and takes responsibility for their watercraft.”
McPhee reservoir is considered high risk for mussel contamination because of its proximity to Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which are infested with mussels. The microscopic young of the invasive species survive in the water of boat ballasts, engines and wells for up to 28 days. Inspection stations decontaminate suspect boats.
Ranger Derek Padilla, of the San Juan Forest’s Dolores District, said operating the two boat-inspection stations for the May-October season costs about $84,000 per year. The cost is shared by the San Juan National Forest, Dolores Water Conservancy District, Bureau of Reclamation and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“We would need to find additional sources of funding to expand the program we currently have,” Padilla said. To install and operate a boat-inspection station at Sage Hen is estimated to be $20,000 to $30,000.
‘Fire borrowing’ impacts budgetAn emphasis on vegetation management and firefighting has impacted other forest programs, officials said. “Fire borrowing” has shifted money within the Forest Service budgets to help fight wildfires in California this year.
Tipton said the funding shortfall for public lands is an ongoing concern in Washington. It was recently estimated that deferred maintenance needs for the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service totals $25 billion, he said.
“It’s an ongoing challenge. More harvesting of downed and dead timber to provide a revenue source for the forest service is one opportunity,” Tipton said.
Declaring major wildfires a natural disaster under the Federal Emergency Management Act would also help reduce fire borrowing and stabilize Forest Service budgets, he said.
Padilla added that the state is considering increasing boat registration fees to help fund boat inspection programs. Also, the Dolores Ranger District is considering a fee to launch on McPhee as a way to provide long-term funding for the mussel prevention program.
“Our goal with more funding would be to first expand what we have in place, such as more inspection days at House Creek,” he said. That boat ramp is only open four days per week during the season.
Underfunded federal landsErtel urged Tipton to pressure public land agencies for adequate funding.
“The federal government is the largest landowner in Montezuma County, and they need to be more responsible in how they fund it. Make the resources available so our land managers can do their job,” he said.
Budget cuts have also hurt recreation, which is a major revenue draw for the economy, said James Dietrich, the county’s federal lands planner.
For example, Sage Hen was closed several years ago to camping because of vandalism. Now there is not enough staff or funding to reopen it, Padilla said. Archaeological studies would also be necessary before camping was resumed to protect those resources.
At one point, the county considered seeking a land transfer to take over Sage Hen and reopen it to camping. Ertel said they have not “given up on the idea, but right now the mussel situation and protecting our lake has taken a higher priority.”
Tipton said if there is enough local support, he would be interested in sponsoring a bill for the transfer.
Padilla pointed out the Forest Service does the best it can with the funding it receives. He said one focus has been upgrading campgrounds to accommodate power needs of modern campers. Cayton, Mavreeso and Dolores campgrounds have received upgrades; next up are House Creek and McPhee campgrounds.
Padilla addressed a proposal by the McPhee marina owner to locate a marina at the House Creek cove. But aerial maps showing fluctuating water levels year to year would make operating a marina there a challenge.
“In low water years, his operation would not fit, and there would not be enough room for ingress and egress of boats,” Padilla said.
He said the recent breakwater and marina at the McPhee boat ramp have led to increased use at the lake. A long-term plan is to expand the breakwater to create more calm waters at the marina.
Motorized route to MontroseTipton also was given an update on the county’s plan to open up a motorized trail from Sage Hen to Montrose that would connect with the Rim Rocker trail to Moab, Utah.
The route would utilize a Western Area Power Administration maintenance road to connect from Sage Hen to the road below the dam and Bradfield Bridge. From there, it would use existing roads, winding up through Naturita and eventually connecting to Montrose.
“It would be a signed route following existing routes. We know it is possible,” Dietrich said. “We are trying to tap into the adventure motorcycling market that is becoming more popular. The concept is that it would be open to ATVs and side-by-sides also.”
Some challenges to the Montezuma County section is working to mitigate impacts to sensitive archaeological and wildlife areas.
Tipton was at ease touring his backyard and meeting with local officials of his home district.
“It’s nice out here, and it would be great to see the lake get used more,” he said. “We used to fish and enjoy the lake from a pontoon boat.”