Defending Colorado's whitewater rafting paradise

Whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River in Browns Canyon.

Photo: Theron LaBounty, flickr.

A bill from Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) would make Browns Canyon a national monument and set nearly half of that aside as a Wilderness Area.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) announced on Dec. 3 that he will introduce a bill this month to designate central Colorado’s Browns Canyon as a national monument, with nearly half of that newly-protected land to be set aside as wilderness.

The legislation would protect about 20,000 acres along the Arkansas River between Salida and Buena Vista, a mountainous expanse replete with granite canyons and home to wildlife including black bears, bighorn sheep, elk, bobcat and mountain lions. Much of the area has enjoyed provisional protection for decades as a Wilderness Study Area, but making that status official would prevent new roads and other such development that might damage local watershed and habitat.

Of course, visitor access to Browns Canyon would be the same as it is now—meaning that one of America’s great outdoor recreation settings remains open for business.

Thank Senator Udall for his work to protect Browns Canyon.

In 2013, filmmakers Sam Bricker and Nathan Ward worked with the Wilderness Society and Friends of Browns Canyon to create a short film about this rafter's paradise. Take a look.

Whitewater central

The Arkansas River contains more than 170 navigable miles of whitewater, and the portion of it that goes through Colorado is sometimes called the state's top rafting run (and one of the best in the country). By many accounts, Browns Canyon is the Arkansas River's single most popular stretch. Its rapids are an intermediate-level challenge running parallel to scenery so stunning that it might test the concentration of some boaters.

But for all the accolades it has earned as a recreation hub, Browns Canyon is also critically important to the economic wellbeing of local communities. The rafting industry on this stretch of river alone contributes more than $23 million a year to the Arkansas Valley economy, which overlapping monument and wilderness designations would help to preserve. Additionally, the area is popular among hunters, anglers and hikers. National monument and wilderness protection would safeguard  game species’ habitat and scenic landscapes, ensuring that Browns Canyon is passed down as-is for the benefit of future Coloradoans.

While Colorado has many pockets of wilderness and other designated public land, Browns Canyon would be one of the few low-to-mid-elevation protected areas. In every respect, the region is rare. Fittingly, the campaign to protect it unfolded with special fervor, over the course of more than a decade, built by local citizens, sportsmen and businesses (perhaps the ultimate testament to its importance and uniqueness was the release of a canyon-themed ale by a local brewery, with proceeds going toward conservation efforts).

Everyone who has helped fight for Browns Canyon deserves a big thank you. Let Sen. Udall know how you feel.

Map of Browns Canyon, Colorado by The Wilderness Society