Whitewater rafting Browns Canyon.
Rafting the Browns Canyon of the Arkansas River.

Fight to Protect Brown’s Canyon Continues

By Casey Fitchett, Adventure Blogger, River Runners

Many are holding out hope that Brown’s Canyon, an area of Chaffee County encompassing the most popular family whitewater rafting trip on the Arkansas River, will one day become the second designated National Monument in Colorado.

Whitewater Rafting in Colorado
The Arkansas River flows through the heart of Browns Canyon.

The Bureau of Land Management named the canyon a wilderness study area (WSA) in 1980 because of its size, natural environment, and “opportunities for solitude and unconfined recreation”. Many visitors to the Arkansas River Valley only associate Brown’s Canyon with whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River, however, the entire land area of the canyon spans 7,451 acres and is also used for hiking, camping , and off-roading. Since the WSA decision, the Bureau of Land Management has been managing this area until Congress decides whether or not to designate it as a wilderness.

According to the BLM website, wilderness areas must be “untrammeled” (meaning human influence is almost unnoticeable), natural, and undeveloped. While the size requirement is the same as a WSA, the area must go to the next level by offering “outstanding” opportunities for unconfined recreation. Upon receiving this distinction, they are privy to long-term protection and conservation by the BLM. There are currently five wilderness areas in Colorado.

Political stalemates have stifled progress towards changes to the label of the area. The National Rifle Association affected the vote in 2006, because of concerns that restricted access of a four-wheel-drive road in the canyon would limit some hunters from being able to access the area. Bills proposed to make the area a wilderness in 2005 and 2008 both died.

Proposed National Monument

Mark Udall, U.S. Senate National Parks Subcommittee chair, unveiled a proposal in late March to create the Brown’s Canyon National Monument. The monument would cover 22,000 acres between Salida and Buena Vista, including 10,500 acres of new wilderness. The BLM and U.S. Forest Service would work with the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife to manage the area. The proposal would not affect the camping access along the river, and rafting the section would not change for the many outfitters in the area.

What is a National Monument

By definition, National Monuments are “designated to afford protection, conservation, and restoration to landscapes of tremendous beauty, diversity, and historic or scientific interest”. While these regions are typically established by the President, Congress also has the authority to protect these features. National Monuments are managed and funded by the National Park Service.

Why Browns Canyon

The Brown’s Canyon area of Colorado is unique, both because of its outstanding beauty and the distinctiveness of the ecosystem. While the majority of the wilderness in Colorado is at alpine or sub-alpine levels, supporters have pushed for the designation because the canyon is at a lower elevation with a river through it.

Both national monuments and wilderness areas are very attractive to tourists and adventurers, potentially bringing more revenue and jobs to the surrounding towns.

While no official decision has been made as of yet to change the designation to wilderness or national monument, it is certain that those attempting to protect the canyon aren’t giving up any time soon.