Deep in Browns Canyon, Zoom Flume, a class III+ rapid announces its presence and its power well in advance. Lee Hunnicutt’s blue skiff floats downstream and a few minutes later he skillfully roars through the rapid, getting rewarded with a slap of cold water to the face. He hoots with pure joy and quickly spins around to watch his friends negotiate the raging waters. Hollers and high-fives abound. The clan of content rafters—who are all Salida locals—catch their collective breath for a moment, eventually disappearing below the horizon as they continue their journey through the magical canyon.
“Browns Canyon is truly a wild place,” says Hunnicutt, a Vietnam veteran, experienced rafter and Salida citizen who has been at the forefront of an effort to turn this section of the Arkansas River into a National Monument. “This remarkable canyon has become my favorite refuge, a place of peace, beauty and connection to nature, not to mention a source of more than a few thrills and spills in the rapids.”
Hunnicutt is not alone in his connection with this special nook of the Arkansas. Thousands of supporters, including, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, are on board the effort to give the place long-lasting protection. “Browns Canyon is a stunning gem that attracts tourists from across the country and the state with its unique mix of exciting whitewater and wilderness close to Colorado’s Front Range,” says Udall, who has rafted the Arkansas and hiked chunks of Browns rugged terrain. “From my time there, I know Browns Canyon is a remarkable landscape that deserves protection.”
The question is how to get everyone on board to make the monument happen?
A Worthy Designation
Beyond the whitewater, Browns Canyon is a Colorado novelty that supports an exceptional level of biodiversity. This unique habitat not only acts as a refuge for people, but also harbors countless critters including black bear, mountain lion, elk and bighorn sheep. “Browns Canyon is uniquely Colorado,” says Keith Baker the Executive Director of Friends of Browns Canyon, a local coalition working to secure lasting protection. Tens of thousands of people flock to Chaffee County each year to explore “this natural treasure,” says Baker. The Arkansas is one of the most popular rivers in the nation, second only to Tennessee’s Ocoee River, and the region generates more than $20 million yearly from whitewater recreation. Countless others come to the area to hike, climb and experience unmatched scenery and solitude.
In 1980, the Bureau of Land Management recognized Browns as a Wilderness Study Area (WSA) and a National Roadless Area, thereby acknowledging the canyon’s wilderness qualities and implementing prohibitions on vehicle use. However, this does not afford long-lasting protection because such a designation can be overturned by Congress.
For this reason, Udall is working on a proposal to create a 22,000-acre national monument that would permanently safeguard this special area. National monuments are created by the President or Congress by the power of the Antiquities Act of 1906, to preserve “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.” If passed, just under half of the land (10,500 acres) would be designated as wilderness, meaning no new trails could be built. Public access, however, would not be limited: riverside campsites, rafting regulations and current uses, including outfitting, grazing, hunting and angling would remain unchanged. Existing mountain bike trails and the historic Turret Trail Route—a source of contention in past preservation efforts—would remain open.
“Browns Canyon is one of the largest economic drivers in Chaffee County and is unique in how accessible it is from the Front Range. The national monument and wilderness designations my legislation would create will ensure that the Arkansas River, the recreation it supports as well as the other uses outside the proposed public lands, including ranching and off-road recreation, can continue as they do now,” he says.
Proponents expect rafting and tourism numbers to rise with monument designation. “This would be a boost to economic development and tourism. If a river flows through or adjacent to a national monument, that’s a key marketing attribute and it will draw more people here,” says Baker. Studies support this idea, including one from Headwaters Economics, that analyzed local communities adjacent to 17 new national monuments. All 17 local economies grew after new national monuments were created.
“A national monument designation will ensure that this incredible public space will remain for future generations and continue to be an economic engine for the area, creating good-paying jobs throughout Chaffee County,” explains Udall.
Despite widespread backing from the community, respected elected officials and a broad coalition that includes hunters, anglers, rafters and horsemen, not everyone supports the idea of making Browns Canyon a National Monument. “Proponents say they want to preserve the area for ‘future generations’ while doing just the opposite—depriving future (and even current) generations of most uses of the area,” says Carl Bauer, a 15-year Buena Vista resident, B&B owner and founder of the High Rocky Riders OHV Club, who opposes the proposal because it does not reopen roads that were closed in the 1970s. Due to the canyon’s rugged nature, land managers have deemed these roads unsuitable for travel and do not have plans to reopen them regardless of monument designation.
“This is Chaffee County’s only real chance at a national monument and I would hate to see the opportunity squandered by those wishing to have it set aside for their near-exclusive use,” explains Bauer, a polio survivor with limited mobility. “Families with young children, handicapped, and older Americans will have little interest in a national monument that they can only access by hiring a white-water guide and going down the river.”
Monument proponents don’t see that as an issue, however. Those who oppose the proposal because it does not expand off-road access, fail to note the fact that all roads and trails that presently accommodate vehicles will remain open thereby “accommodating access for the mobility-impaired in exactly the same manner that they do now,” states Udall.
Though this is the first time a monument has been proposed here, controversy over Browns Canyon is nothing new. This area has been a point of contention since the 1970s when the Forest Service first identified 102,000 acres as suitable for wilderness designation. No changes were made until the 1980s, however, when the BLM created the current WSA. Over the years, various attempts to protect the area have failed; in 2006, a wilderness proposal received support from the entire Congressional delegation, but was thwarted in the 11th hour by NRA claims that even though big game hunting was permitted, wilderness would be detrimental to hunters because of off-road vehicle (ORV) restrictions.
Compromises made to accommodate motorized recreation, dispersed camping and river outfitters have already whittled down the proposal from 34,762 acres to 20,025 acres. Part of the original proposal was actually surrendered to the Four Mile Travel Management area, a 100,000- acre parcel of land just north of the proposal that contains 180 miles of off-road routes. Yet, ORV users continue to be some of the most outspoken opponents.
Many of those who oppose the monument seem to be fighting a straw man, however. At meetings held by Udall and Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado Springs) in Chaffee County this spring, some voiced their desire to see the federal footprint shrink or remain the same, but this is already public land so a monument designation will not alter the footprint. Others voiced concern that further protection will infringe on their grazing permits. Udall’s office has been clear that grazing rights along with a host of others will be memorialized with monument designation. Others worry that this will limit the potential for resource extraction; government agencies have concluded that Browns has very little to no commercial value for mining, logging, gas or oil.
After the meetings, Lamborn, whose district includes Browns Canyon, remained uncertain about the proposal. At press time he was unavailable for comment, but last April, he wrote a letter to his constituents stating, “I would like to see greater consensus from the community before supporting such a dramatic change. Such a designation could lead to increased federal regulations on the land and further restrict its use.”
Comments like these lead protection advocates to question how much further consensus is possible when so much has already been compromised. “The process has been frustrating because the area has been trimmed down repeatedly in order to gain support” says Baker. “And yet Lamborn still wants more consensus.”
Udall continues working to incorporate community concerns and plans to introduce the bill before the end of the year. However, without support from Lamborn, any bill is likely to fail. “I am committed to continuing to work together with residents to ensure that current legal uses of Browns Canyon and surrounding lands are able to continue. I also am committed to working with Congressman Lamborn to address his concerns and find a bipartisan way forward on this common-sense proposal.”
But why must the monument happen now? “The sense of urgency with Browns Canyon has multiple causes,” says Baker. “There are the obvious environmental and conservation motives but I believe one of the major underlying reasons for the current sense of urgency is concern over the divestment movement that would have us sell off all our public lands (for a pittance, I’m sure) to various development interests. Unless something is done now to reverse the tide, public lands in general—not just Browns Canyon—could suffer.”
That battle over the meaning of public lands seems to be the true challenge facing Browns.“ Among the many unique qualities of America is our legacy of protected public lands,” says Hunnicutt, who spends as much time rafting or hiking in the canyon as possible and is active in the campaign to protect the area. “I proudly served my country in Vietnam and believe that I fought for every citizen, city, state and acre of land in this country, as well as the ideals that make America great. Now, to simply preserve these few remaining acres from destruction, I feel like I am fighting for my country once again.”