The rough and tumble Arkansas River ends up draining more than 170,000 square miles, including parts of Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, before merging with the Mississippi at Napoleon, Arkansas. Along its 1,469 course, the river sustains melon patches at Rocky Ford, farms in Kansas and urban uses in Little Rock.
But the river’s story starts high in the Rockies, where it gathers strength from tiny trickles of melting snow above 14,000 feet from Sawatch and Collegiate — the mightiest ranges in Colorado. By the time it spills out on to the plains at Pueblo, it’s dropped almost two vertical miles, carving a path through the bony heart of Colorado.
Rushing past Leadville, the Arkansas slices through some of Colorado’s most distinctive lava layers, revealing, at Ruby Mountain, an unusual deposit of volcanic garnets and rubies. Within view of U.S. Highway 285, the rivers rolls past small towns and ranchlands, where where gnarled cottonwoods and rusted pickups sit tilted in the wind, and then into a beloved Gorge called Browns Canyon, where one of the West’s latest public land dramas is playing out.
After 20 years of trying, conservation advocates seem poised to win a protective land designation for the canyon, a jumbled, twisted rush of foamy water, polished boulders and thick green forests filled with deer and mountain lions.
Unique National Heritage
Everybody agrees that Browns Canyon is a cherished resource that deserves special consideration. Less understood, or perhaps taken for granted, is the fact that having a say in public lands management is a unique American privilege. There aren’t too many other countries in the world where a public lands ethic is as deeply woven into the civic and cultural fabric as here in the western U.S., where millions of acres of peaks, prairies, deserts and valleys are owned by us — the American people.
In a well-orchestrated push to finally create a monument, Colorado’s two democratic senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, publicly asked President Obama to designate about 22,000 acres of national forest and Bureau of Land Management land along the Arkansas River as a national monument under the 1906 Antiquities Act.
“We feel the future economic benefits of a National Monument designation are significant for the region, and we should not allow Congressional gridlock to deprive Colorado of those benefits,” Udall and Bennet wrote in their Nov. 25 letter.
Various legislative proposals to create a monument have floated and sunk over the years; now public land advocacy and conservation groups, including the Wilderness Society, have joined forces with the outdoor recreation industry and community development boosters to generate momentum for a presidential designation.
Both senators were in Salida last weekend on a listening panel to hear public input on Browns Canyon. The public meeting was held at Salida’s Steamplant Theater, symbolically facing the Arkansas River in a community that is clearly hitching its civic future to the recreation-based economy that has helped many western Colorado communities boom in the past couple of decades.
With standing-room only in both the main auditorium and a large overflow room, meeting organizers used a lottery system to allocate precious public comment time, and based purely on the weight of the speakers, there is strong support for the designation, which would create new wilderness on public lands managed by the Forest Service and BLM.
All Sides Heard, Loud and Clear
The sheer number of comments in favor of a designation overwhelmed a few lingering critics, as pro-conservation organizers ensured that people who don’t always have their voices heard were able to attend and speak, including Latino youth group leaders, vets who spoke of the healing quality of wilderness and Native Americans.
“We’re listening. We listen, that’s what we do,” said BLM deputy director Steve Ellis, acknowledging the deep public lands passion expressed by many people who spoke at the session.
The pro and con arguments presented a microcosm of many other debates over public lands, often reflecting the quest to balance traditional uses of public lands like ranching and logging with wildlife conservation and recreational use.
Tourism boosters, anglers and rafting tour operators touted the oft-cited economic benefits of the designation, while individual hikers and wildlife lovers extolled the spiritual virtues of undisturbed lands as places where they experienced their first star-filled night. Several local, state and federal-level elected representatives also spoke in favor of the Browns Canyon designation.
Long-simmering local concerns also surfaced in the comments, fueled in part by a general mistrust of federal government, along with a pinch of not-so-pleasant provincialism. A few speakers who identified themselves as local business owners in Salida charged conservation groups with stacking the deck by busing in supporters, and suggested the issue should be put to a local vote.
There were accusations that the federal government wants to shut down mining and grazing, and that the designation could prevent firefighters from suppressing forest blazes, or hinder work to log fire-prone areas. Other critics said the designation could bring too much business, charging river outfitters with wanting to exploit the resource for profit.
Some comments reflected a fundamentalist strain of opposition from Colorado’s old guard, including the local water conservancy district, which won’t support the designation without legally binding contracts addressing existing water rights. Similarly, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association opposed the designation based on an attrition of grazing rights that threatens Colorado’s agricultural industry.
Perhaps the most serious statement of opposition at the political level came from Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (CD-5, Colorado Springs), who claimed in a statement for the record that local residents are deeply divided over the designation, with concerns over the ability to fight wildfires and impacts to ranchers.
Since such assertions often go unchallenged in mainstream media reports, it was refreshing to hear U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell respond directly a short time later, saying that the designation, as proposed, wouldn’t have any effects on water rights, grazing leases or wildfire fighting.
Antiquities Act Wrangling?
Presidential use of the Antiquities Act always has the potential to be controversial, but it doesn’t have to be. Bill Clinton drew the ire of Utah republicans when he created Grand Canyon of the Escalante National Monument in 1986, a move that was described as heavy handed federal usurpation of local control in the spectacular central Utah canyon country.
But the most recent monument designation Colorado went smoothly, when Sen. Bennet lead to push to recognize the 4,600-acre Chinmey Rock area for its natural and, especially, its archaeological values. And in 2000, Republican Congressman Scott McInnis led a local-based effort to create the 123,000-acre McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, with the Canyons of the Ancients being designated at the same time.
Historically, the Antiquities Act has been used by presidents of both parties, most frequently by Franklin Roosevelt (27), Bill Clinton (22) and Teddy Roosevelt (18). Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover stand out as other Republican presidents who used the act liberally, 16 and 17 times respectively, while Ronald Reagan didn’t pull the trigger even once during his two terms. So far, President Obama has used the law 13 times, about average for a president midway through his second term.
With a high level of local support, it’s not clear if a presidential designation at Browns Canyon would draw a lot of fire, but given the recent intensity of partisan fighting over public lands, it wouldn’t be surprising. But the president would be on firm legal footing in making the designation, several speakers said, explaining that Browns Canyon clearly fits the type of land suitable for national monument status.
There is no set timetable for making a decision on the designation. The agency representatives that were at the meeting said they’ll take their notes back to Washington, D.C., where a formal designation would come from the White House, based on recommendations from the land managers.[Photo via the raft-guide blog for JB Raft and Ski.]