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A monumental proposal

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Ed Quillen | Mar 21, 2012 06:00 AM

Things have sure changed around here. When I moved to Salida in 1978 to work for the local newspaper, I covered many hearings about roadless areas and their suitability as wilderness. And invariably, the local business community was opposed to "another federal land grab" that would "lock up valuable resources" and "deprive us of a livelihood."

Nowadays -- now that mining and logging have nearly vanished from the local economy, which has become based on tourism -- the attitude is different. At a meeting of the Salida Business Alliance last week, the president asked for comments about a proposed national monument designation north of town, and got unanimous encouragement to write a letter supporting it.

The area in question has been an issue at least since 1978, when it was known as Aspen Ridge and proposed for wilderness designation. It sits between Buena Vista and Salida in central Colorado, and runs from the east side of the Arkansas River to the crest of Aspen Ridge, the boundary between Park and Chaffee counties.

Browns Canyon ColoradoSometime in the past 34 years, the area's name changed to Browns Canyon, although the wilderness would not include the river, one of the most popular whitewater rafting streams in America. One outfitter supported wilderness designation because "I want to be able to promote that. I think it would be a great marketing angle for us: 'Come visit Browns Canyon Wilderness.'"

The area in question, from the river to Aspen Ridge, is fairly rough terrain at a relatively low elevation, providing for year-round big-game habitat.

In 2006, the stars appeared to be aligned for congress to set it aside, with the state's entire delegation in favor of wilderness designation. But then the National Rifle Association butted in.

Not that designation would have affected anyone's Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. And the area still would have been open to big-game hunting. But the NRA believed "the bill would drastically reduce access to the area for hunters and sportsmen, especially those who are elderly," and "Without roads in the area, it would make it nearly impossible to pack out big game."

Well, hunters could hire local outfitters with horses and mules, but that would cost money that should be spent on ATVs and NRA dues.

At any rate, political support faded as soon as the NRA weighed in. Most Western politicians would rather support free heroin than oppose the NRA.

But it isn't settled. The BLM has identified Browns as an excellent potential wilderness designation, and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, is asking for public input on either wilderness or national monument status for Browns.

In ways, monument designation makes more sense than wilderness designation, because management could be more flexible. And the monument, since it doesn't have to possess all those wilderness characteristics, could include the canyon proper with its railroad tracks, as well as land on the west side between the river and the highway.

If Udall gets enough support, he would likely push the White House for a monument proclamation. National parks and national monuments are both generally managed by the National Park Service in the Department of the Interior. The difference is that parks are designated by Congress and monuments by the President.

And how quickly it might happen might depend on the outcome of the presidential election. If Barack Obama is defeated, look for some national monuments to be declared as his term winds down in early 2013.

Monument declarations are something of a tradition for presidents as they leave office. In January of 2009, as his second term was winding to a close, George W. Bush proclaimed the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument as well as two others. In 2000, at the start of his last year in office, Bill Clinton proclaimed three national monuments.

Two of Colorado's national parks -- Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon of the Gunnison -- began as national monuments proclaimed in 1933 by Herbert Hoover in his final days in the White House. 

The tradition may be as old as the Antiquities Act of 1906 that allows presidents to set aside federal land as national monuments, for in 1908, Theodore Roosevelt's last full year in the White House, he set aside eight national monuments, and in 1909, just before leaving, he added Mt. Olympus in Washington to the list.

So if Obama is defeated this year, look for some monumental proclamations. If he's re-elected, the proclamations will come in late 2016 and early 2017. That may not be a law of nature, but it's a feature of American politics.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Ed Quillen writes from Salida, Colo.

Image of Browns Canyon rafting courtesy Flickr user Echo Canyon River Expeditions

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