Could the fight for Colorado's Browns Canyon finally be over?


The struggle to protect Browns Canyon, a rugged stretch of the Arkansas River in central Colorado, has been waxing and waning since the area was first studied for wilderness designation in the 1970s. Several attempts to create a new federal wilderness have been floated since then, and though they’ve come tantalizingly close, none have yet passed.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., wants to change that. A former Outward Bound director, wilderness proponent and mountaineer (he’s climbed Denali, Aconcagua and 26,000 feet of Everest), Udall announced on Tuesday the culmination of a project he’s been working on for 18 months: a bill to create a brand new, 22,000-acre National Monument in Browns Canyon, including 10,500 acres of wilderness. After soliciting thousands of comments and holding several public meetings, Udall seems to have found a recipe for success – the support of local businesses, national monument designation (which offers more flexible management than pure wilderness), and unchanged access for hunters, ranchers, off-roaders and human-powered recreation such as rafting.

“There’s tremendous support on the ground,” says Matt Keller, the national monument campaign director for advocacy group The Wilderness Society. “Senator Udall and his staff have done a tremendous job listening to people’s concerns and addressing them.”

But noticeably absent from the discussion has been Rep. Doug Lamborn, the Republican who represents Chaffee County, where the Canyon is. Though he has yet to make an official statement, Lamborn’s spokesman told High Country News Wednesday that the Congressman does not support Udall’s bill, and still has “concerns over the lack of consensus … from certain residents.”

Browns Canyon, Colorado. Courtesy Mark Udall.

Lamborn’s disapproval presents a fairly significant hurdle, because while most national monuments are created by presidential decree under the Antiquities Act, Udall wants to take a different route: Congressional approval, for which he’ll likely need Lamborn’s support. Without it, the bill – which proponents have heralded as a groundbreaking step in the 40-year battle to protect Browns Canyon from drilling and development – may suffer the same fate as past attempts, like a 2006 push for wilderness designation that once seemed destined for success.

That bill, written by Republican Senator Wayne Allard and Rep. Joel Hefley, was co-sponsored by every member of the Colorado delegation. Passage seemed imminent until, in the 11th hour, the National Rifle Association got involved. Amid concerns that limitations on road building would prevent some hunters from hauling out big game, progress ground to a halt. Or as longtime contributor Ed Quillen wrote in his final High Country News column before his death last year: “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.”

Udall hopes that compromises in his legislation – such as protecting existing uses and adjusting the boundary to exclude cattle watering tanks – are enough to garner a wide net of supporters, including skeptics like Lamborn. Proponents of the designation cite the financial boon of national monuments (though as the most popular whitewater rafting destination in the U.S., Browns hardly needs additional promotion), the relatively inexpensive cost of adding new protections to existing federal land, and the need to protect what former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called a place that’s “quintessential Colorado.” The area would also be one of the few low-elevation regions protected in the state, offering prime winter wildlife habitat.

If Udall succeeds, Browns Canyon could become the first piece of wilderness protected by either this or the previous Congress – the first Congresses since the 1960s to not protect a single acre of wilderness. Udall spokesman Mike Saccone says the senator is now focusing on building Congressional support and is working directly with Lamborn’s office: “We’re hopeful when he sees the community support he’ll come around.”

Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.

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