Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series about Browns Canyon.
National monument designation for Browns Canyon is the culmination of decades of work, and it might not have happened at all if not for the persistence – perhaps stubbornness – of a few advocates.
Just days after President Barack Obama signed off on Browns Canyon National Monument, a few of those advocates sat in a Salida coffee shop to recount the years of effort.
“This is a story that has great human and political drama,” said Michael Kunkel, the first president and cofounder of Friends of Browns Canyon.
In the early years, they were scraping together any money they could for the cause.
Even before the Friends group came along, advocates struggled for decades to get more protection for Browns Canyon, seeing bills come and go, only to have hopes dashed by political roadblocks.
The Friends’ ultimate goal was to create a wilderness area east of the Arkansas River with the Browns Canyon Wilderness Study Area at its heart.
“We were all volunteers,” said Kunkel. “We weren’t paid. We had no titles, no business interest in Browns, no hidden agenda.” And for the first 10 years of their efforts, they operated on less than $1,000 a year.
Much of this area used to be roadless, said Jerry Mallett, who was the Wilderness Society’s western field representative from 1970 to 1982 and another cofounder of Friends of Browns Canyon. At the time, Mallett was on the ground mapping the area and meeting with interested individuals and groups.
But as the years went by, the size of wild space around Browns Canyon would shrink by significant amounts.
“We didn’t want Browns Canyon to become a 20,000-acre appendage of Fourmile,” said Kunkel.
The story begins with the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE I), which was for areas with wilderness characteristics that had not been reviewed under the 1964 Wilderness Act.
RARE I, established in 1972, included U.S. Forest Service lands in Browns Canyon, then known as Aspen Ridge, which spanned more than 100,000 acres.
In 1976, Congress instituted the Federal Land Management Policy Act (FLPMA), an act that directed the Bureau of Land Management to review its land for best management practices and gave the BLM direction to manage resources, said Mallett. “Before that they were a holding agency to dispose of lands no one thought were valuable. Mostly, they were going to grazing and energy.”
Mallett and Dick Scar helped champion wilderness designations for other areas, such as the Sangre de Cristo, Collegiate Peaks and Buffalo Peaks wilderness areas.
FLPMA was the first initiative that said that the area in the heart of Browns Canyon, which wasn’t a wilderness study area yet, had wilderness characteristics. In 1976 it also closed Turret Trail where it crossed into the area that would become the Browns Canyon Wilderness Study Area.
But during that process there was no public involvement. “It was all agency guys proposing the designation of wilderness study areas,” Mallett said. “The BLM was at that time a small agency that wasn’t prepared for FLPMA.”
From the late 1970s into the 1980s, Browns Canyon was further inventoried for wilderness characteristics.
In 1980 the BLM reached the decision that 6,614 acres of Browns Canyon did qualify as a wilderness study area and purchased nearly 150 additional acres to add to the original recommendation after an intensive inventory of the area. Inventorying of Browns Canyon continued through the ’80s.
A 1991 BLM Wilderness Study Report officially recommended the Browns Canyon WSA for wilderness designation. “The entire Browns Canyon WSA is recommended for wilderness designation. This is the environmentally preferable alternative as it will result in the least change from the natural environment over the long-term,” reads the 1991 BLM Wilderness Study Report.
Republican Reps. Wayne Allard and Dan Schaefer introduced the first wilderness bill that would include Browns Canyon in 1991, but it also included many other areas in Colorado. That bill never made it out of committee, and future bills attempting to designate areas in bulk as wilderness would see similar troubles.
In 1999, Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of the 1st Congressional District presented her first Colorado Wilderness Act proposal. Degette would take multiple stabs at an omnibus wilderness bill that included Browns Canyon.
Since 1999, DeGette has introduced 11 different Colorado wilderness bills that would include Browns Canyon, and none of them have come to fruition. The acreage of proposed Browns Canyon wilderness began at nearly 22,000 in 1999, then swelled to about 24,500 in 2001 and 2002. In 2003 it grew to 34,873 acres, stretching further north and south than the national monument seen today.
Compromises have been made along the way, shaving off sections to the north and south. To the south were lands, such as the Longs Gulch area, that did not have wilderness characteristics, and to the north DeGette’s wilderness crossed a well-established motorized-use trail, which would later become the southern boundary of the Fourmile Travel Management Area.
Although the Browns Canyon advocates were supportive of DeGette, they knew anything she put up for Congress to designate would be hard to advance. DeGette’s bills targeted land all over the state for wilderness while her own district, in the Denver metro area, had none.
It had to come from someone local or it wasn’t going to fly, said Reed Dils, a longtime raft company owner, wilderness advocate and one of the principal volunteers for Collegiate Peak Anglers Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
“DeGette’s bills have never gone anywhere because they are too far reaching into too many areas of the state where it’s not well received. It causes blowback to whoever is locally elected there,” said Kunkel.
In 2000, Kunkel went on his first outing in the area with the Colorado Environmental Coalition on a wilderness mapping trip. “When I saw this area, I was stunned that the wilderness study area was not being managed at all as wilderness. There was trespassing and trash,” he said.
“I was stunned to note that the BLM/Forest Service gate and fence line on FS 184 Turret Trail had been vandalized 100 feet in either direction with the fencing ripped out or torn down. Heading west down Cottonwood Gulch, motorcycle, ATV and Jeep tracks were fresh and rampant. Wilderness Study Area signs were nonexistent or had been mutilated. Cans, bottles and trash were scattered throughout the WSA.
“One couldn’t get over the feeling that the Browns WSA was incredibly neglected and certainly not managed as wilderness. Nobody cared about it, and it wasn’t on the BLM’s radar for any management what so ever.”
The advocates’ efforts really began in earnest in 2002, Kunkel said. He approached Mallett, who’d had extensive experience in getting the legislature to designate wildernesses, about creating a friends group for Browns Canyon. Mallett had mapped the Aspen Ridge Roadless Area during RARE I.
Hooking up with Light Hawk, an organization supporting conservation groups by offering flights over areas of interest, the Friends took multiple flights over the Browns Canyon area.
Kunkel said the Fourmile area to the north of Browns Canyon looked like a bloodshot eye with its many crisscrossing motorized trails visible from the sky. Fourmile has 200 miles of motorized trails on 100,000 acres.
It was an eye-opening experience, said Scar, who participated in multiple fly-overs. The maze of user-created trails, especially north of Browns Canyon, was obvious from the sky, he said.
Friends of Browns Canyon officially formed in 2003, with volunteers spending “hundreds upon hundreds of hours in the field mapping and getting to know the area,” Kunkel said. “Jeff Widen and Kurt Kunkle especially dedicated hundreds of hours on field work.”
Later that year a major stepping-stone in their efforts came about. The 5th Congressional District’s Republican Rep. Joel Hefley had 10 areas in the district, and he could pick one to push forward as wilderness.
“I’m a real lover of the wilderness,” Hefley recently said. With his wife and children, Hefley was an avid outdoorsman who’d often pack into wilderness areas on horseback. They even rafted Browns Canyon. After having firsthand experience with the area, Hefley knew “it was worthy of protection.”
The area proposed for wilderness in Hefley’s bill, however, looked much closer to the boundaries today, as opposed to DeGette’s 35,000-acre proposal. Even the Friends volunteers who’d been dedicating hundreds of hours in the field inventorying the land had to admit that lands in the south did not have wilderness characteristics.
And to the north, the DeGette proposal incorporated a well-established motorized trail, something that, if included, made it hard to argue for wilderness.
Hefley officially introduced the Browns Canyon Wilderness Act in Congress Nov. 4, 2005.
The Friends of Browns Canyon were riding high on Hefley’s proposal, said Pete Bond, a former Friends board member. “We thought with this Republican congressman on board that it would be a done deal.”
But their struggle was still far from over.