Life in the Legislature-protecting our watersheds

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Don Coram is Colorado State Senator for District 6

As winter weather drives more people indoors, it’s time to note that there’s been good progress made lately on Colorado’s natural resources issues. There’s a long ways to go before we are protecting our watersheds with healthier forests, but federal and state policies are going through some changes that will head us in that direction.

The United States Forest Service (USFS) recently announced that it’s expanding the federal-state partnership, known as Good Neighbor authority, to increase state management efforts on federal lands. This is recognition that states do have a positive role to play in mitigating wildfire risk and improving forest health on federal lands. This will be done in a collaborative way with the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) and the trend to utilize state agencies for forest treatments is also being followed in Wisconsin, Michigan and Texas.

I’m gratified to see the USFS head in this direction as clearly the status quo was not working. Good forest management doesn’t benefit from the misguided premise that natural resources such as forests and watersheds follow political boundaries. Instead, we need to work on a more ecologically-sound and commonsense basis and follow natural boundaries.

The Gold King mine spill into the Animas River above Silverton provides another example of how following political boundaries is much too limited a field of vision when dealing with natural resources challenges. As the mine sludge crossed municipalities, counties, tribal lands and states, the Animas and San Juan Rivers followed their own timetable and geographical course, paying no attention to which entity was attempting to deal with the sludge affecting the various constituencies.

At a local level in southwestern Colorado, it’s also very gratifying to me to see existing watershed protection groups, whether governmental, nongovernmental or academic, pull together in a collaborative coalition to address the new and historical water quality challenges brought to the forefront by the Gold King mine spill. This broad-based and diverse coalition has a website,, to share with the public their knowledge and continuing efforts addressing the aftermath of the mine spill. The really impressive contribution of the coalition stakeholders is the necessary willingness to forego pushing their own particular agendas when working together for the sake of finding the common ground shared with other coalition members. This isn’t an easy thing to do, yet it’s critical for forward movement in the bigger group.

Similarly exhibiting a cooperative spirit, the Colorado legislative water interim committee, on a bipartisan basis, joined forces with the wildfire matters interim committee to support a resolution to Congress calling on a different spending approach for the USFS. Recognizing the essential, yet often overlooked, linkage between forest health and water quality and supply, legislators from around the state are urging that federal funds to be spent on managing forest health not be depleted by the overwhelming cost of fighting catastrophic wildfires. In almost a decade at the legislature, I’ve not seen two committees collaborate together to send a message, both committees voting unanimously in support, but that happened this interim.

So, while on a daily basis, hourly even, we hear of all the ways our government is divided, dysfunctional and a mess, I share with you some other, real-time, examples of our representative democracy and community engagement working well around you for the good of others.

About the author

Ellen Roberts

Ellen Roberts

Ellen Roberts is the Senator for Colorado District 6 which encompasses Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma, Montrose, Ouray, San Juan, and San Miguel counties. In 2015, she was elected to serve as the President Pro-Tem for the Colorado State Senate.