Protecting Colorado's Browns Canyon National Monument

Two wrong turns, one U-turn and one unintended dirt-road-up-a-mountain-pass later, my friends and I piled out of my car just in time to suit up. Earlier in the year we scored a Groupon deal for rafting the Arkansas River in Colorado and the time had finally come to cash it in. Though the water was low due a pitiful winter snowpack and the summer wind had a chill bite to it, we were ready for the rapids.

If seven of us in a car together was a near disaster, seven of us on a raft together was complete chaos. From bumping into other rafts to throwing someone over, we made the day “entertaining” for our guide. But, three years later, my friends and I still exchange stories about that day. We still remember the clear water, the crowds of other weekend warriors from cities along Colorado’s Front Range, cliff diving, and a quiet lunch on the banks of the river as we skipped rocks, watched fish, and wished the sun would warm us up by just a few degrees.

Protecting Colorado's Browns Canyon National Monument

Though I had been to this valley numerous times during my college days at Colorado College, I had always gone to the other side, where massive peaks towered over hiking trails and hot springs. I had left the river portion unexplored.

Big mistake.

After our rafting trip, I went back to explore. I camped, took in the spectacular views of the 14,000-foot peaks, and even did a little treasure hunting (that will be another post — but only after I find the treasure). This place had it all, but I had never bothered to learn its name.

After some time, I started working for Conservation Colorado, a statewide nonprofit organization, on the final push of a decades-long battle to designate a little place along a river as a national monument.

Protecting Colorado's Browns Canyon National Monument

Turns out the river I had fallen in love with, the area in which I spent days exploring with my pup and nights soaking in hot springs, was this place. Browns Canyon, as I found it was named, was a Wilderness Study Area managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). It wasn’t developed, but it also was not permanently protected.

Getting more involved in the campaign, I learned that numerous fly fishing and rafting outfitters relied on the river and its protection to thrive, not to mention the local businesses that who survived on weekend warriors like my friends and me.

Protecting Colorado's Browns Canyon National Monument

It made sense: the river is close to Denver and other Front Range cities, but its solitude makes it seem like a world away. It was a refuge for city dwellers, which is why a coalition of dedicated Coloradans had worked for several decades to get Browns Canyon permanently protected.

2014 was the final push: it was the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act, legislative champions for the idea held federal office, and momentum of the local municipalities of Buena Vista and Salida, along with the people of Denver, had come together to inform change-makers that the place where they rafted, hiked, and fished had a name and needed help.

All the while, I was stunned that I was part of the team that was heading such a monumental campaign (pun intended).

Fast forward: Over a year later, I’m preparing to live tweet a public meeting in Salida. Hosted by President Obama’s administration, we’re gathering so the government can gauge local interest in forming Browns Canyon into a national monument. Driving to the meeting, I’m jittery, nervous that we may be outnumbered by opposers.

Protecting Colorado's Browns Canyon National Monument
The locals even used their cars to campaign for the protection of what they hoped would become a neighboring national monument. 

But as I reach Salida, I see sign after sign in business windows; they’re all asking for Browns Canyon to be turned into a national monument. I arrive at the public hall with 30 minutes to spare and find that an overflow room has already been started; it fills and I give up my seat to stand in the hall.

Protecting Colorado's Browns Canyon National Monument

The entire building is at capacity and the majority of the people are here to stand up for the protection Browns Canyon.

It doesn’t take long to feel the energy in the room — it is electrifying. People are charged up to fight for their right to enjoy this place, and more importantly, the right for future generations to enjoy its magic.

This is the epitome of the outdoor life for me — the unity I feel with my community. We fight for good together. We have innumerable stories to share about the same place, and we love our natural areas, even if it’s in different ways.

Land can unite people, from anglers to rafters, from hikers to business owners. And yes, even the treasure hunters.

In the end, we did it. Browns Canyon National Monument was officially protected by President Obama last week. People who love the river will be able to continue telling stories the solitude of hiking in Browns Canyon, of fishing in the prized waters of the Arkansas, of cliff diving, and more, for generations to come. These are stories that have already been shared for decades; they are the stories shared at that historic public meeting in Salida, and they are the stories that pushed the hills and waters and treasures of Browns Canyon to be permanently protected.

Protecting Colorado's Browns Canyon National Monument

So, keep sharing.
. . .

About the Author: 

Born and raised in the Carolinas, Sarah White moved out to Colorado for college and hasn’t left since (except for the time she lived in New Zealand). From paddleboarding to cliff diving, to backpacking and skiing, Sarah’s aim is to take full advantage of her surroundings. She is rarely without her travel companion, a five-year-old rescue mutt named Koru who keeps her sane and connected to the simple wonders of the outdoors.

Find her online:

Instagram: @crescentcompositions
Facebook: /sarahdeswhite (or you can befriend her dog here: /koru.white)
Twitter: @crescentcomp

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