The San Miguel River watershed is one of the wildest
and most scenic landscapes in the world, a rare
and fragile combination of intact and vital ecosystems
and natural beauty. At the heart of the one million-acre watershed, the untamed San Miguel River
flows for 72 miles from its high alpine headwaters
above Telluride to its desert confluence with the
Dolores River. Due to heavy use and increased development
pressure, 38 miles of this corridor, plus
133 miles of tributary streams, are managed as a
Special Management Area and as an Area of Critical
In a study completed in 1986 for the The Nature Conservancy and the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, the riparian system of the San Miguel Watershed was determined to be one of the two most important river systems in Colorado for protection. Within the riparian zones surrounding the river and its tributaries, willows and box-elders, quaking aspens, bittercress, and a variety of sedges flourish, providing important forage for elk and white-tailed deer, as well as shelter and nesting sites for a number of bird, reptile, and amphibian species. Upstream
of Horsefly Creek, Colorado blue spruce, narrowleaf
cottonwood, Douglas-fir, thin leaf alder, water birch,
and red osier dogwood grace the banks of the river.
This is the only western Colorado riparian woodland with water birch as a major component. In The Nature Conservancy's Middle San Miguel Preserve, located downstream of Specie Creek, remnant or relic sites, which are defined as plant communities that remain essentially untouched by human activity and retain all of their original floral components and characteristics.
Along the river are stands of stately, old-growth ponderosa pines in classic park-like settings. Throughout the watershed, mountain lions and coyotes prowl the mesas and canyons, while redtail hawks and golden eagles roost in the trees and cliffs. During the winter months, bald eagles are present, with two communal roost areas within the boundaries of the
proposed wilderness area.
The stream system hosts a number of game and nongame
fish, including rainbow, brown, brook, and cutthroat trout, and suckers, shiners, sculpins, and
minnows, respectively, providing excellent opportunities
for fishing and an important food source for
many of the areas bird species. Enhancing this abundance
are numerous sites of historical and archaeological
significance, most notably unhatched dinosaur
eggs discovered in 2000.
River otters reintroduced to the Dolores River in 1988 have since expanded their range and made their way
far up the San Miguel River. Otters are routinely seen
in the lower segments of the proposed wilderness.
The San Miguel River offers continuous Class II and
occasional Class III rapids throughout the length of
the wilderness. For 2001, BLM reported approximately
3,362 recreational user days (782 private/2,580 commercial) on the San Miguel River, much
of which occurs through Norwood Canyon within
the CWP unit. BLM has designated six river campsites
in the river corridor for overnight use.
Eighteen grazing allotments, totaling 873 AUMs,
cover the area; only one of these qualifies as a high
priority for intensive management. Two allotments,
Horsefly Common and Uncompahgre Common, are
grazed in conjunction with allotments in the
Uncompahgre National Forest. Most of the allotments
consist of large acreage with a small preference
that averages 48.5 AUMs per allotment. The
steep slopes and rugged ridgelines of the area force
livestock to graze along the mesa tops or in the riparian
zones of the canyon bottoms, leaving much
of the allotment acreage untouched.
Three commercially valuable forest stands have been
identified within the area, consisting of three hundred
twenty-five acres of pinyon-juniper woodland
on the mesa top near the San Miguel River-Beaver
Creek confluence and two ponderosa pine forests at
the top of the mesa near the Goodenough Gulch
confluence. Aside from these commercial timber
resources, the primary uses for the remainder of the
forest include Christmas trees, wildling transplants,
posts, poles, firewood, and pinyon nut collection.
Despite a number of exploratory oil and gas wells,
no production has ever occurred in the area. At
present, the entire area is open to oil and gas leasing,
with seasonal stipulations imposed for wintering
eagles and big game animals. Coal production potential
is rated low by the BLM, and geothermal has
a low to moderate production potential rating.
There are approximately 116 mining claims within
the boundaries of the unit, and the entire unit, with
the exception of the land acquired in the Carsten’s
exchange, is open to the staking of mining claims
under the 1872 Mining Law. The BLM rates the
area as having low to moderate potential for locatable
minerals, and the only active mining that occurs
today is by weekend recreational miners who
use small suction dredges to recover “flour” gold
from the San Miguel River sediments.
The river corridor and the heart of the wilderness
proposal is closed to motorized vehicles.
The heart of the area is the San Miguel River. The
Colorado Water Conservation Board holds instream
water rights for up to 91 cfs during summer months.
There are numerous private water rights located upstream
of the proposed wilderness.
Four miles of the river, as well as four miles of one
of its tributaries, were excluded from the original
wilderness inventories of BLM and Forest Service
in the 1970s because San Miguel River is split between
Forest Service and BLM jurisdictions. Individually,
these jurisdictions were considered too
small to qualify for wilderness. However, considered
as part of the entire watershed, these areas result
in a roadless area over 13,000 acres in size.
The CWP consists primarily of the San Miguel River
canyon itself and a major tributary canyon, Horsefly
Creek. The area’s boundary is drawn largely along
canyon rims and private property boundaries.
>> detailed map
Rafters enjoy a float down the San Miguel River.