Colorado's Browns Canyon: Good things come in a small package

Hikers in Browns Canyon, Colorado.
© John Stansfield

by John Stansfield, Wilderness Chair of the Pikes Peak Group, Rocky Mountain Chapter of Sierra Club.

After more than 20 years of effort to preserve Browns Canyon with some level of federal protection, no one was willing to go so far as to call this most recent attempt a sure thing. But following stalled efforts to bring legislation...to the Senate floor for discussion, the push for action is evident.
--Scott Willoughby, outdoor writer for the Denver Post, December 7, 2014.

Browns Canyon is a ruggedly scenic complex of mountainous ridges and winding valleys adjoining the Arkansas River between Buena Vista and Salida, Colorado, about 130 miles southwest of Denver. This stretch of river is wildly popular with recreationists, especially rafters and float anglers. It is perhaps the most frequently rafted river reach in the nation.

In contrast, Browns Canyon's upland ridges and dry valleys, which provide the scenic natural backdrop for river travelers, offer hikers, wildlife watchers, climbers, hunters, and equestrians ample opportunities for solitude and four-season access. Unlike the soaring, tundra-topped Collegiate Peaks and Sangre de Cristo Mountains nearby, Browns is -- for Colorado -- lower elevation mountain terrain.

The area's somewhat milder climate provides critical winter range for elk, deer, and bighorn sheep. Peregrine falcon, golden eagle, mountain lions, and black bear visit at times, while the rare black, tufted-eared Abert's squirrel lives here year-round.

Given its numerous wild values, the size of Browns Canyon might seem huge. In fact, the wild lands and river encompass only about 25,000 acres, only a fraction the size of higher elevation designated wilderness areas in the region. Yet, the dollar impact of the canyon goes far beyond its limited acreage.

According to Suzanne O'Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, "Browns Canyon is a stunning, rugged stretch of natural landscape that supports a multi-million dollar local outdoor industry."

Similarly, Bill Dvorak, a rafting outfitter and conservationist from Salida, Colorado, states, "The economy of this valley is really driven by tourism. Designating Browns Canyon as a national monument would put a star on the map right here."

While the Arkansas River receives careful recreation management through the collaboration of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and State of Colorado, no permanent protective designation exists for the canyon uplands. A BLM Wilderness Study Area and an adjacent U.S. Forest Service Roadless Area offer only interim protections for 20,000 acres of wilderness-quality terrain.

Conservationists, river outfitters, other businesses, and local officials have mounted a strong campaign for permanent protection of Browns Canyon. Support from the local public is very strong.

A great opportunity exists for President Barack Obama to create a national monument at Browns Canyon, using his powers under the Antiquities Act. To inform the President's action, on December 6, 2014, more than 500 people from across Colorado and surrounding states packed a small theater in Salida, Colorado to overflowing.

Listening attentively to their testimony were Colorado senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, the author of the currently log-jammed Browns legislation, as well as Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service and Steve Ellis, Deputy Director of the BLM, representing the Obama Administration. An overwhelming wave of attendees spoke in favor of a Browns Canyon National Monument.

Now it is time for a second wave of public support from across Colorado and the nation in favor of a Browns Canyon National Monument. Tell President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell you support a Browns Canyon national monument!

Tags: Colorado

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