Two Nederland residents appointed as “guardians” of Boulder Creek, giving it a voice in town policy

They’re not claiming to be guardians of the galaxy. They’re not even sure how much power they have protecting Boulder County’s western watershed.

But a couple of Nederland residents are now officially guardians of Boulder Creek where it flows through the former mining town, and say they will give voice to a waterway in demand and under siege.

“I know for a fact that people in and around Nederland are going to be bringing issues to our attention, they’ve already sort of started doing that,” said Rich Orman, a former Arapahoe County prosecutor now living in the mountain town, and hoping his new guardian status can help preserve the creek and two valleys that feed into town.

Nederland’s board of trustees, in effect the town council, passed the resolution in early January naming two guardians to fulfill a rights of nature measure passed in 2021. Conservation advocates in Nederland and backers in Colorado nonprofit groups are joining the international rights of nature movement, sometimes called personhood for rivers.

They say natural areas deserve a defender when developers or government policy threaten a watershed’s health.

“We’re not really trying to enforce anything. We’re just trying to keep channels of communication open,” said Alan Apt, the other Boulder Creek guardian appointed by Nederland. “We have a lot of support from citizens in Nederland who are generally very environmentally concerned, and I think we’re all concerned about climate change.”

Apt pointed to the statewide climate change report detailed in Fresh Water News and other publications, tallying a 2.3 degree rise in average temperatures already and 1 to 4 more degrees to come by 2050. The Colorado State University report also warned of key watersheds losing up to 30% of their available water as snowpack decreases and high temperatures evaporate runoff before it reaches streams.

“It might be something that’s going to have a real direct impact on all of us, but especially on our local industry at Eldora ski area, and our local watershed,” Apt said.

Naming actual guardians takes the rights of nature movement “to a new level,” said Gary Wockner of Save the Colorado and Save the Poudre, one of the advocates taking rights of nature resolutions to Colorado towns like Ridgway, Grand Lake and Lyons.

“This is much like having a guardian appointed to represent a person who cannot represent themselves because their mental capacity is limited, or because they haven’t reached the age of consent,” Wockner said.

That does not mean there are specific legal rights conferred on the guardians, the advocates said. Orman and Apt see their role as logical communicators, researching concerns about the Boulder County watersheds and reporting to the town boards how they could impact a valuable resource.

Orman said his legal background is less important than his experience navigating the interplay of local governments, courts and citizens.

He does like to point out, however, that Colorado law gives towns like Nederland the ability to influence activities high above their actual locations. “Towns have the right to make rules for watersheds outside the town boundaries,” Orman said. 

Nederland officials have tangled with business interests reviving the Cross and Caribou gold mines up one of those drainages. While much of Nederland is surrounded by protected national forest, there is private land in key wetland areas like the meadow below Eldora, that advocates should keep an eye on, Orman said.

“All these regulatory agencies are really busy,” Apt said. “And in some cases, you have to be a squeaky wheel to get their attention.”

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