Monumental Push Made to Protect Colorado’s Browns Canyon

Supporters of making Colorado's Brown Canyon a national monument hope that President Obama will approve a designation. Photo courtesy of Friends of Browns Canyon.

Supporters of making Colorado’s Brown Canyon a national monument hope that President Obama will approve a designation. Photo courtesy of Friends of Browns Canyon.

Coloradans and people from across the country who flock to Browns Canyon for its renowned whitewater rafting are hoping the area 140 miles southwest of Denver will soon become the country’s newest national monument. Colorado Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet have asked President Barack Obama to use his executive authority to make it happen. Collin O’Mara, the National Wildlife Federation’s CEO and president, joined Colorado Wildlife Federation Executive Director Suzanne O’Neill in sending a letter to ask the president to add to his conservation legacy “by protecting the unique values of Browns Canyon.” In a Nov. 19 letter, Chris Wood, Trout Unlimited CEO and president, told Obama that a monument designation would preserve fish and wildlife habitat and maintain outdoor recreation important to the Arkansas River valley and the state of Colorado economies.

Rallying the public for Browns

The hope is to add great public heft to those calls when Udall and Bennet host a public meeting Saturday in the mountain town of Salida. U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director Steve Ellis are among the public officials expected to be on hand to gauge support for establishing the 22,000-acre Browns Canyon National Monument.

“We locals and people across the region know what a spectacular place Browns Canyon is and what a tragedy it would be not to take steps to keep it that way. Everyone who loves Browns and loves fishing, hunting, rafting and hiking needs to speak up and make sure President Obama understands what this place means to all of us,” Dave Moore said.

Bill Dvorak, NWF’s public lands organizer and longtime rafting guide, has been working for about 20 years to help win protection for Browns Canyon. He has taken several members of the media, elected officials and business owners on trips down the Arkansas, one of the country’s most popular whitewater destinations. Recreation on the Arkansas generated nearly $56 million in economic benefits in 2013, according to estimates by the Colorado River Outfitters Association.

The Arkansas River through Browns Canyon is one of the country's most popular whitewater destinations. Photo by John Fielder

The Arkansas River through Browns Canyon is one of the country’s most popular whitewater destinations. Photo by John Fielder.

Fishing is big in Browns Canyon. The state wildlife agency recently classified a 102-mile stretch of the Arkansas as Gold Medal trout waters, based on the quality and quantity of fish. The area’s rugged backcountry, marked by granite rock formations, is prized by hunters. The canyon provides habitat for bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, bears, mountain lions, falcons, eagles and imperiled bats. Hikers in areas proposed as wilderness in a bill by Udall can get great views of some of Colorado’s famous Fourteeners — mountains more than 14,000 feet in elevation. “Protection of Browns Canyon, arguably the most popular and scenic stretch of river in the U.S. is a no-brainer,” Dvorak said. Elected officials and supporters have worked for years to get a bill through Congress to make Browns a national monument. Previous efforts won bipartisan support from Colorado’s congressional delegation, and that was when the proposed monument was much larger — roughly 100,000 acres. However, legislation stalled.

Leaving a legacy

The latest bill, sponsored by Udall, was developed during 18 months with support from a diverse group of people. Udall said the bill, S. 1794, co-sponsored by Bennet, has been endorsed by more than 200 local businesses, area elected officials, many recreation and sportsmen’s organizations, the Vet Voice Foundation and the Hispanic Access Foundation.

Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, left, hikes in Browns Canyon with supporters of making it a national monument. Photo by Sarah Pizzo

Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, left, hikes in Browns Canyon with supporters of making it a national monument. Photo by Sarah Pizzo.

“While we remain committed to the legislative process, the gridlock in Congress has stymied this proposal and many others. We feel the future economic benefits of a national monument designation are significant for the region and we should not allow Congressional gridlock to deprive Colorado of those benefits,” Udall and Bennet wrote in a letter last week to Obama. In New Mexico, grassroots, diverse coalitions worked for years to protect Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, but legislation failed to move forward in Congress, said Max Trujillo with the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and deputy director of HECHO, Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and Outdoors. “President Obama’s decision to use his executive authority to make Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monuments means fish and wildlife habitat will be protected and people of all ages and means will continue to have places to hunt, fish, hike and enjoy the outdoors,” Trujillo added.

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Speak up  and ask President Obama to designate Browns Canyon as a National Monument!

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