Browns Canyon of the Arkansas River is the central feature in a unique ecosystem that provides outstanding fish and wildlife habitat, stunning mountain views and four-season recreation opportunities. On Feb. 19, 2015, President Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate 21,586 acres as Browns Canyon National Monument – 11,836 acres of the San Isabel National Forest and 9,750 acres of Bureau of Land Management land.
Located between the communities of Buena Vista and Salida, Browns Canyon National Monument ranges in elevation from 7,300 to 10,000 feet above sea level, offering incredible views of the Sawatch Range, which forms 100 miles of the Continental Divide and is home to some of the highest peaks in lower 48 states. The protected land provides clean water for the Arkansas River’s Gold Medal trout fishery, important wildlife habitat, biological diversity, outdoor recreation opportunities, scenic beauty, cattle grazing and other uses.
Well before the national monument designation, Browns Canyon had become the most popular stretch of whitewater in the U.S. This section of the Arkansas River is also part of the longest section of Gold Medal river in Colorado. In addition to unmatched whitewater boating and angling opportunities, the monument offers opportunities for backcountry solitude, horseback riding, hiking, camping, nature watching, photography and stargazing.
The BLM portion of Browns Canyon includes the Browns Canyon Wilderness Study Area, officially recognized in 1993. The Forest Service land within the monument is remote and primitive with rugged terrain, no developed campsites and dispersed camping opportunities accessible only by hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding.
Surveys date the presence of American Indians at least 13,000 years into the past. Archaeological sites with stone artifacts are attributed to the Paleo-Indian and early Archaic periods. The general area is traditionally significant to the Ute, but Jicarilla Apache also claim traditional cultural ties to area.
Elevations in Browns Canyon National Monument range from 7,300 to 10,000 feet, making this a unique mid-elevation area of public land. As the elevation increases, the pinon juniper trees that dominate the arid lands along the river give way to Douglas fir, Ponderosa pine, and large stands of aspen.
The sheer ruggedness, proximity to water and lower elevation provides important habitat for wildlife, including black bears, bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, American pine martins, mountain lions, eagles, falcons, imperiled bats, and many other species of wildlife.
Browns Canyon of the Arkansas River is one of the most popular destinations in the nation for whitewater enthusiasts. Browns Canyon National Monument is important to the economic health of local businesses, river outfitters, and the surrounding communities.
Browns Canyon and the surrounding terrain were recommended for protection as wilderness for years, but Congress failed to provide permanent protection. Local organizers worked with members of Congress to write wilderness proposals and introduce legislation for Browns Canyon to protect its watershed, wildlife habitat and other natural qualities. Congressman Joel Hefley (R) introduced the original Browns Canyon Wilderness legislation, and every member of the Colorado delegation signed on to co-sponsor – Tom Tancredo (R), Marilyn Musgrave (R), Wayne Allard (R), Ken Salazar (D), Mark Udall (D), John Salazar (D), Diana DeGette (D) and Bob Beauprez (R).
Congressman Wayne Allard said, “This area includes some of the most picturesque vistas in Colorado, and this bill would preserve its natural beauty. It is a stunning landscape with granite canyons stretching along the Arkansas River and merging into mixed forests and meadows. … In addition, the legislation would improve recreational opportunities within the area, which is one of the most popular rafting spots in Colorado.”
Browns Canyon Wilderness legislation enjoyed bipartisan support, due in large part to the proposed balance between areas open to motor vehicles and areas where vehicles would not be allowed.
Unfortunately, Rep. Hefley’s legislation, which would have designated 35,000 acres as wilderness, did not come up for a vote before the congressman retired. Organizers continued working to protect Browns Canyon with support from numerous business owners. As Congressman Allard said, “Not only will this bill protect one of Colorado’s great natural treasures, it will bring more tourists to the surrounding area and help the economies of Chaffee and Fremont counties.”
Friends of Browns Canyon was formed as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and continued public outreach and education efforts and demonstrated a willingness to compromise in order to protect this national treasure. Sen. Mark Udall’s (D) National Monument and Wilderness Bill scaled back the acreage proposed for protection to just over 20,000 acres, but the new legislation also failed in the prevailing Congressional climate of partisanship. President Obama’s proclamation, based upon Sen. Udall’s legislation, finally protected Browns Canyon in 2015.
Browns Canyon National Monument, including the Wilderness Study Area, helps produce clean water by protecting watersheds, provides critical wildlife habitat, maintains biological diversity, offers outdoor recreation opportunities, provides scenic beauty and serves as a spiritual or psychological haven from modern day pressures.
Browns Canyon National Monument “boasts some of Colorado’s most pristine forests, great hunting and fishing habitat, and draws outdoor enthusiasts from across Colorado and the country during nearly every season,” said then-Senator Ken Salazar.
Browns Canyon National Monument’s proclamation memorializes valid exiting uses while protecting the area from new exploitation and resource damage.
Why a National Monument?
Permanently protecting Browns Canyon:
- Preserves opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation, including rafting, kayaking, hunting, horseback riding, fishing, climbing and hiking.
- Allows existing access roads and trails on all sides of the monument to continue to provide recreational access while preserving the core land in its current state.
- Assures no new road construction damages the area’s watershed or wildlife habitat.
- Makes Browns Canyon National Monument a part of the BLM’s National Conservation Lands, a permanently protected collection of public lands throughout the West set aside for current and future generations because of their outstanding cultural, ecological and scientific importance.
Friends of Browns Canyon invite you to join our efforts by visiting this great place, learning more about its irreplaceable natural values and helping to protect it. Please make a tax-deductible financial contribution (see sidebar) or volunteer for one of our trail crews. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates on this important work.