Browns Canyon should be protected as a national monument now
Last month, 100 eager faces gathered amid the sound and spray of the swollen Arkansas River for a crash course in history, ecology and customer relations. Colorado’s newest crop of river guides had gathered in Salida to learn about Browns Canyon, which will be their home for the next several months as they lead visitors through the whitewater of one of Colorado’s most iconic and popular landscapes.
Browns Canyon is both an economic driver and a pillar of life in the upper Arkansas Valley. The values that attracted these guides – and that will draw tens of thousands of visitors this summer – are what make Browns Canyon a jewel worthy of preservation as a national monument.
The river valley and surrounding mountains provide ideal habitat for a variety of species: peregrine falcons, golden eagles, elk, bighorn sheep, bobcats, to name a few. Hikers, hunters and anglers treasure this quiet and rugged landscape and the unique experiences it offers. The 100-mile section of the Arkansas River that includes Browns Canyon was recently designated as Colorado’s longest stretch of Gold Medal Trout Water, sustaining some of the state’s most productive fishing and attracting more than 100,000 anglers a year.
And it’s no secret that Browns Canyon is one of the most popular whitewater rafting destinations in the U.S. Beginning in June, and for the next few months, more than 200,000 visitors will paddle down the Arkansas River, generating more than $55 million in revenue.
Over the years, there have been a variety of community-driven efforts to safeguard the future of this pristine place. In 2005, legislation to protect Browns Canyon was introduced by Congressman Joel Hefley and Sen. Wayne Allard, both Republicans. The companion bills, which ultimately were derailed by special interests, had the support of more than 100 local businesses, not to mention Colorado’s entire congressional delegation.
The latest legislative proposal, carried by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, reflects this same broad, bipartisan and community-driven approach. In fact, his bill to set aside the canyon and 22,000 acres of adjacent public land as a national monument is the result of 18 months of meetings, public-comment sessions and written input from Chaffee County leaders, residents, businesses and other stakeholders. This is how public lands designations should be done — and I strongly urge Congressman Doug Lamborn, whose district includes Browns Canyon, and the entire delegation to get behind this grassroots bill.
If other recent national monument designations are any guide, Browns Canyon is a no brainer. For example, consider the recent designations of Point Arena-Stornetta seashore along the rocky northern California coast and 500,000 acres of rugged land in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks of New Mexico. These are valuable additions to our national heritage, protecting for future generations access to land for hunting and outdoor recreation, critical wildlife habitat, and places of cultural and historical significance.
And the public supports a similar designation in Colorado.
In polling conducted last year, two-thirds of voters in nine western states said that protecting public lands for future generations was very important to them. And in Colorado College’s annual “Conservation in the West” poll earlier this year, a stunning 98% of Coloradans said that public lands are an “essential part” of the state’s economy, providing recreation opportunities and enhancing our quality of life.
It’s hard to argue against such sentiment, considering that outdoor recreation supports 125,000 jobs and is responsible for more than $13 billion in spending each year in Colorado. That translates to almost a billion dollars in annual revenue for local and state governments.
Places like Salida and Buena Vista know this already. They recognize the threat that things such as potential mining in Browns Canyon pose to their quality of life. The only guarantee for ensuring that the canyon remains the lifeblood of the upper Arkansas Valley for generations to come is to protect it in perpetuity.
Recognizing Browns Canyon as a national monument is the best way to ensure that its many unique values are safeguarded and remain available to us and our kids far into the future. We should not wait any longer. The time to act is now.
Bill Ritter served as governor of Colorado from 2007-2011. He is currently the director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.