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Browns Canyon: Good Things in a Small Package

The effort to preserve several thousand acres surrounding the Arkansas River in Browns Canyon has been gathering steam for some 18 years, enjoying the most favorable climate for approval to date…. And many in the region… would like to see permanent wilderness protection for Browns Canyon along with designation as a national monument, similar to a national park.

--Scott Willoughby, outdoor writer for the Denver Post, July 29, 2012


Railroad Gulch-John StansfieldPhotoPhoto courtesy John Stansfield

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 less than 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 collaboration of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and State of Colorado, no protective designations exist for the canyon uplands. A BLM Wilderness Study Area and an adjacent US Forest Service Roadless Area offer only interim protections for 20,000 acres of wilderness-quality terrain. Conservationists, businesses, and local officials are mounting a strong campaign for permanent protection of the lands.

In response, Colorado Senator Mark Udall is collecting online public comments to help shape potential legislation creating a Browns Canyon National Monument, with suitable lands designated as Wilderness. The conservation community is aligned behind Option One, which offers full wilderness and national monument protection.

In addition to Senator Udall’s advocacy, Rep. Diana DeGette’s (CO-1) Colorado Wilderness Act of 2011 (HR 2420) would designate wilderness in Browns Canyon and a number of other lower elevation areas in around Colorado. For more information, see www.BrownsCanyon.org.

-- By John Stansfield, Wilderness Chair, Pikes Peak Group, Rocky Mountain Chapter of Sierra Club




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