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How comprehensive management planning can benefit ecosystems and communities while encouraging agency collaboration

Rivers are the arteries of our earth’s landscape. Nothing matches a river’s abilities to connect our places and spaces and sustain life in, alongside, and even miles away from its course. A river will travel along the path of least resistance, beginning at a high point known as the headwater and ending at its mouth. Depending on its elevation, age, geology, and other factors, a river can make a mad dash through the landscape leaving behind canyons and waterfalls, or it may saunter across the land creating wide floodplains and marshes along its edges.

The Green River in eastern UtahThe world’s inhabitants gravitate toward rivers and use them to serve their needs. Humans have established communities on their banks; traveled on them; harvested food from them; dammed them for hydropower; and altered their courses and changed their natural flows to support agriculture, urban development, and other needs. Humankind has had an enormous effect on rivers, but we can move forward, lessons learned, to ensure that rivers remain flourishing, productive, and inspiring places for generations to come. 

How do we manage rivers as functioning, sustainable ecosystems while still supporting human needs? It’s a complicated question without easy answers. One approach is to develop comprehensive management plans (CMPs) that guide land managers and the public. SWCA recently had the opportunity to develop CMPs for segments of two of the West’s most important rivers—the Green and the Colorado.


The Put-In

The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands (FFSL) approached SWCA with a challenge: How could FFSL balance the protection of Public Trust resources (navigation, fish and wildlife habitat, aquatic beauty, public recreation, and water quality) with the proposed human uses of the Green and Colorado Rivers?

To address this challenge, FFSL trusted SWCA to develop Utah’s first-ever CMPs for sovereign land segments of these two essential waterways. The CMPs would describe the existing condition of the rivers’ resources and provide a management framework to help the agency fulfill its responsibilities. In addition, the CMPs would provide consistent, clear permitting processes and requirements and outline best management practices for implementing any authorized projects.

Developing the CMPs required an extensive outreach process that involved multiple stakeholder groups including agricultural interestsDeveloping the CMPs required an extensive outreach process that involved five stakeholder groups: counties, the public, federal agencies, tribes, and specific organizations or people representing, for example, recreation and agriculture. These stakeholders’ decisions and actions, both large and small, influence land management and the resource issues at the heart of the plans. Multiple meetings with these groups ensured broad input and buy-in.

Because the Green River is a tributary to the Colorado River and part of the larger Colorado River system, FFSL initially envisioned a combined CMP for both rivers. However, after SWCA was awarded the contract for the combined CMP and began project discussions with FFSL, the need for two CMPs became clear because of the different management concerns and objectives for each river. 



Because segments of the Green and Colorado Rivers were navigable at statehood in 1896, the State of Utah, through the Equal Footing doctrine, claims fee title ownership of the bed and banks of those river segments. The Utah State Legislature defines sovereign land as “those lands lying below the ordinary high water mark of navigable bodies of water at the date of statehood and owned by the state by virtue of its sovereignty” (Utah Code 65A-1-1). The Utah State Legislature has designated FFSL as the executive authority for the management of sovereign lands in Utah, including the Green and Colorado Rivers. FFSL has direct management jurisdiction over lands lying below the ordinary high water mark of navigable bodies of water at statehood. Because the precise location of the ordinary high water mark at the time of statehood is not known for all of the Green and Colorado river segments, FFSL generally manages the river from the top of one bank to the top of the opposite bank.

FFSL administers sovereign lands using multiple use, sustained yield principles. Implementation of multiple use policies must avoid substantial impairment of Public Trust resources. As a trustee, FFSL must also strive for an appropriate balance among compatible and competing uses on the Green and Colorado Rivers.

FFSL recognizes the importance of the Green and Colorado River ecosystems and their natural, cultural, recreational, agricultural, and aesthetic amenities, including those resource values and uses that extend beyond the river banks and that affect or are affected by actions on sovereign lands. Accordingly, FFSL considered it imperative that management of the rivers include coordination and cooperation in planning and actions with other agencies that have jurisdictional and management responsibility over river resources.


Deep Connections

SWCA’s desire to contribute to the success of the Green and Colorado Rivers CMPs runs deep. The roots of SWCA were nurtured on the Colorado River. In so many ways, the foundation of our company culture and guiding principles—sound science, talented people, integrity—originate from the experiences founder Steven Carothers and former Chief Executive Officer John Thomas acquired while plying their trades decades ago, Steve as a leading scientist working on the Glen Canyon Dam environmental impact statement and John as a Westwater Canyon river ranger.

Many of SWCA’s Salt Lake City–based staff also have strong personal connections with these majestic rivers. We have boated Desolation and Cataract Canyons, we have wandered in and out of the nooks and crannies of Lake Powell, and we have grown up on the beaches and boat ramps that line the banks of both rivers. We understand their vital importance to local communities from Jensen, located near the spot where the Green River enters Utah, to world-famous Moab, through which the Colorado flows on its way to Arizona and beyond.


First of Their Kind

Song sparrow (Melospiza melodia)The Green and Colorado Rivers CMPs represent a few firsts, both regionally and nationally. Their development has increased the Utah public’s awareness of FFSL’s jurisdiction and management authority and, because many of the plans’ goals and objectives are geared toward cooperative efforts, they have improved coordination among the many agencies responsible for the rivers and their resources. The plans—especially the Colorado River CMP—are significant nationally because the Colorado River system supplies water for agriculture, industry, and municipalities throughout the Western United States. The Colorado River generates hydropower; supports a diversity of fish, wildlife, and other habitats; and offers recreation for locals and tourists from around the world. Because it is one of the most legislated, debated, and litigated rivers in the world, cooperative and coordinated management along the entire water course, including Utah, is essential for maintaining its health.  

Main Stem

The CMPs present existing information, current scientific studies, available land use data, and management goals and objectives in reader-friendly text and illustrations. FFSL classifies sovereign lands based on use classes provided in Utah Administrative Code R652-70-200. SWCA worked closely with FFSL to review each river and assign use classes to help guide decision-making. Use class maps can be viewed in more detail in a GIS data viewer. A proposed action matrix shows common activities that require FFSL authorization and in which use class those activities are allowable, potentially allowable, or not allowable.


The complete CMP package includes interactive Esri Story Maps and an innovative GIS data viewer for the public. Many of today’s readers prefer not to page through a plan, even one with navigation links. These readers can see and explore each river via an interactive Esri Story Map organized with tabs that align with the CMPs’ content, sidebars with text and graphics depicting resource information and management goals and objectives, and related data layers. Users can turn certain data layers on and off and see the resources that matter to them. A municipality, for example, can combine authorization locations with river use classes to plan a utility crossing. Boaters can layer access locations and navigational hazards to prepare for a float trip. Researchers can select wildlife and habitat layers to understand the river’s ecology. Explore the Green River Story Map and Colorado River Story Map here.

Looking Downriver

The CMPs are essential resources for FFSL and river stakeholders in daily operations, decision-making, and future planning. Each CMP provides a one-stop shop for accessing current resource information, viewing river classifications and allowable uses, referencing management goals and objectives, and reviewing best management practices. In addition, the CMPs provide a clear picture of FFSL’s jurisdiction and authority and how the agency’s role relates to the roles of other agencies managing the river.

Paddle boarders on the Colorado RiverPerhaps the most beneficial achievement of the CMPs has been the strengthening of partnerships with other managing agencies and entities. Because multiple agencies and entities have jurisdiction over the rivers and their resources, holistic management has always been a challenge. At the outset of the CMP development process, FFSL established a planning team of state agencies to provide data, technical information, insight into management and jurisdictional roles, and oversight of CMP content throughout the process. In addition, the public outreach process included multiple meetings with counties, federal agencies, and tribes. By working with the planning team and other managing partners, opportunities for holistic management were identified and included as goals and objectives, and FFSL’s role on the Green and Colorado Rivers was elevated.

The CMPs’ many other benefits are as follows:

  • The public now has an enhanced understanding of the rivers’ current conditions and FFSL’s direction, responsibilities, and goals for managing sovereign lands.
  • Recreationists can more easily identify recreation opportunities and access points.
  • Potential permittees better understand FFSL’s management authority, permit requirements, and processes; the need for appropriate project designs that align with management goals; and best management practices. The types of projects allowed and areas where projects can be implemented are outlined in the CMPs.
  • Adjacent landowners are more aware of their potential to positively or negatively affect the river and can better work with FFSL to protect it.
  • Local communities’ concerns were heard, and potential solutions to issues were developed through management goals and objectives in the CMPs. This has led to enhanced trust and communication with this important stakeholder group.
  • Future recreation users will experience fewer conflicts on the rivers because the CMPs identify the need for a recreation resource management plan in heavily used river segments of both rivers.


The Take Out

The inclusive public outreach process that drew in multiple stakeholders and management partners coupled with the thorough synthesis of the current conditions of the rivers resulted in truly comprehensive planning documents. The strategies we developed with FFSL for the management framework in both CMPs consist of goals and objectives focusing on actions and decisions within FFSL’s jurisdiction. The goals and objectives allow multiple opportunities for coordination with other Colorado and Green River management entities (e.g., 7 counties, 12 state agencies, and 6 federal agencies) while supporting human uses and working to maintain, improve, and restore the Public Trust resources. We believe the CMPs will help FFSL balance human uses with the collaborative management of both rivers as sustainable, healthy ecosystems.

Please check out the CMPs, Esri Story Maps, and GIS data viewers here:

Green River Plans | Utah DNR – FFSL (Forestry, Fire and State Lands)

Colorado River Plans | Utah DNR – FFSL (Forestry, Fire and State Lands)


Keys to Successful Project Communication

Project communication occurred through multiple methods:

  • Project website with an online comment map
  • SharePoint site for communication between FFSL and SWCA, as well as with the planning team
  • In-person meetings, presentations, and public open houses
  • Development of a mailing list for email and postcard communication
  • Newspaper noticing
  • Development of a project brochure and project website business card to distribute at in-person events

During the initial public outreach, we encountered some worry and frustration from stakeholders such as recreation users and farmers. In general, we found that after spending time explaining FFSL’s role, the process of developing the CMPs, and our desire to help stakeholders, people’s fears were eased.

Agencies and entities with management or jurisdictional responsibilities on the rivers were generally open to participating in the process and providing feedback.

The keys to successful project communication were consistent outreach, offering multiple ways to be involved, working to understand the issues and conflicts, listening, and being responsive.

Read more from The Wire, Vol. 22, No. 1 below: