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"The Sportsman's Park Service"

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Jodi Peterson | May 27, 2009 04:26 PM

Do paved trails, groomed picnic areas, and visitor centers stocked with tacky t-shirts and soft-serve ice cream make your outdoor experience seem uncomfortably like Disneyland? Next time, skip Rocky Mountain National Park and wander into the much less developed lands of the National Landscape Conservation System – like the Gunnison Gorge, in western Colorado.

The Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area is one of some 800 units in the NLCS, created by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 2000  to protect the “crown jewels” of BLM land and emphasize conservation over multiple use. Congress finally gave the NLCS official standing this spring, when it voted to make the system permanent. That should lead to greater recognition and funding for the often-strapped NLCS, which includes some 27 million acres of wild and scenic rivers, historic trails, wilderness areas, national conservation areas, and national monuments.

Recently I got the chance to float 15 miles of the Gunnison River through the Gorge, courtesy of Trout Unlimited. To reach the put-in, we drove 45 minutes on a rough, rutted dirt road, then hiked a mile on a rocky trail that dropped past huge sandstone cliffs through a piñon-juniper forest.

The river was at the tail end of its spring flood (as restored by an agreement reached last fall); at 3,000 cubic feet per second, the silty-brown water was fast but not frightening. Six feet above our heads, the canyon walls were polished smooth, evidence of the river’s once-impressive flows, before three dams went up in the ‘60s. Our group floated downstream for hours, grinning and hollering over bouncy little rapids, catching (and releasing) fat browns and rainbows, watching swallows and ouzels and a far-off golden eagle (there’s even a video on Youtube).

“These are places you can hunt and fish and disappear,” said Brian O’Donnell, the executive director of the National Conservation System Foundation, who joined us on the trip. And these are just the kind of places we need more and more in the increasingly controlled and regimented West -- no pavement, no visitor center, no t-shirts.

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