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Know the West

Protection versus promotion at Brown's Canyon


Editor's note: This is a final column submitted to High Country News by Ed Quillen, who died Sunday, June 3. He was 62 years old.

Can you protect an area by publicizing it and attracting more visitors? That question first hit me a few years ago when I encountered a guidebook that featured Colorado's waterfalls.

The book argued that the more visitors that various backcountry cascades received, the greater the constituency for protecting them. The corollary to that, alas, is that the more visitors a place gets, the greater the need for protection.

The question comes up again in considering the future status of Browns Canyon. The canyon proper is a stretch of the Arkansas River in central Colorado between Buena Vista and Salida. It's one of the most popular places for whitewater rafting in the U.S. On the east side of the canyon are 20,000 acres of public land ranging from sagebrush and piñon-juniper to spruce and subalpine fir, inhabited by peregrine falcons, pine martens, elk, bighorn sheep and black bears. There's serious talk of making that land and the adjoining canyon a national monument, a designated wilderness, or both. U.S. Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, was in Chaffee County gathering local input this spring.

Current land management is a patchwork of Forest Service and BLM land, with Colorado State Parks managing river traffic and some private property in the form of a defunct rail line. Udall said he would prefer that management remain with the same agencies, even if it became a national monument.

Wilderness designation would preserve existing grazing rights, but would eliminate motorized uses -- mostly ATVs -- on some rough old mining and logging roads. National monument status would give land managers more authority than they have now, although it would not necessarily ban motorized uses. Any change, though, raises the question: Is formal protection just another way to exploit a natural resource?

River outfitters have supported either national monument or wilderness designation. The monument makes the area better known, and it's a great marketing angle to tell raft passengers that you're floating them through a genuine wilderness.

John Engelbrecht, executive director of Salida's chamber of commerce, likes the idea of a national monument. "It's a star on the map," he says. "It makes the area much more visible. It will bring people here who wouldn't come otherwise. And that will be good for local businesses."

How good? Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group based in Bozeman, Mont., recently released the results of a study of the economic effects of national monuments on nearby communities. All 17 monuments in the study had been created since 1982, and were larger than 10,000 acres. They ranged from Ironwood Forest in Arizona to Mt. St. Helens in Washington.

"The analysis found that the local economies surrounding all 17 of the national monuments grew following the creation of new national monuments," Headwaters reported. "While this does not demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship, this finding shows that national monuments are consistent with economic growth in adjacent local communities."

In most cases, growth after monument designation continued an existing trend, but there was an exception. For El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico, the leading indicators of population, employment, personal income had all been declining in the years before designation, then suddenly reversed course and began climbing. Overall, "the rise in personal wealth is significant, particularly in rural areas where average earnings per job are often declining."

Monument status or formal wilderness protection, Salida's Engelbrecht said, “are also seen as an amenity that lead to increased property values.”

Promoting local business is Engelbrecht's job. But if national monument or wilderness designation gets more people to visit Browns Canyon, wouldn't that threaten the very resource that is supposed to be protected by that action?

Ben Lara, recreation and lands program manager for the local U.S. Forest Service ranger district, said options to contain human impact are rather limited when the agency is trying to accommodate crowds in designated wilderness. "We can build and improve foot and horse trails," he said, but no matter how many visitors arrive, "we can't install privies. We can't develop campgrounds." What the agency can do, he said, is establish wilderness trailhead quotas, requiring overnight campers to get permits, as happens at the overcrowded Indian Peaks Wilderness Area west of Boulder.

On the other hand, any wilderness portion of Brown Canyon, whether in a national monument or not, is unlikely to see a major influx of visitors. The vast majority would just float through under the supervision of a river outfitter. The land east of the river is rugged and rather inaccessible to normal vehicles, though it sees some ATV and dirt-bike traffic. Some locals point to those motorized routes and occasional prospect holes as reasons that Browns shouldn't qualify as a wilderness area “where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man.”

Protection of the Browns Canyon area has been a source of local contention for as long as I've lived here, since 1978, and likely before that. Wilderness protection was close to a done deal a few years ago, with support from the entire Colorado congressional delegation, until the National Rifle Association opposed it on the grounds that even though big-game hunting would still be permitted, wilderness would infringe on the Second Amendment rights of geriatric ATV-driver hunters who were too cheap to rent pack horses and mules.

If there were an easy answer, we'd have likely come up with it by now. Over the years, I've come to think that the best course is monument designation for long-term protection that would allow some ATV use but under tight regulation. Not that I like ATVs and dirt bikes (Barry Goldwater once described them as Japan's revenge for losing World War II), but their users are citizens and taxpayers, and this is their country, too.