Just a few miles into Browns Canyon, it’s easy to see why there’s such enthusiasm behind Colorado Sen. Mark Udall’s proposition to make it a national monument. The tour through the serene canyon wilderness is an experience that’s hard to match, especially in mid-May when the summer masses have yet to flock to the area.
Guided by Noah’s Ark rafting guide Zach Khavari, we float past a few houses and a campground, the last visible evidence of civilization before entering the canyon itself. Once in the canyon and far enough ahead of the other two rafts in our group, it feels like we’re the only people for hundreds of miles, surrounded by canyon walls and desert-like vegetation. It’s a stark contrast to the high-alpine environment of Summit County, a little over an hour north.
The surrounding ridges and valleys are home to peregrine falcons, golden eagles, great horned owls, bobcats, bears, deer and elk, occasionally visible to passing rafters.
The Browns Canyon stretch of the Arkansas, between Buena Vista and Salida, is a great place for a first-time, family-friendly rafting experience; it’s less intimidating than the Royal Gorge, farther downriver. But it still offers plenty of splash with a number of Class II and II rapids. At higher water levels some rapids come closer to Class IV. It’s no wonder Browns Canyon is the most rafted stretch of river in America, though in May it is hard to imagine.
The pleasant combination of Class II and Class III pool-drop features also make it a good spot for advanced-intermediate whitewater kayakers. But take caution, the numerous boulder gardens do provide a technical aspect to navigating the rapids; it is always a good idea to go with someone familiar with the run.
“Browns Canyon has so much to offer in terms of whitewater and scenery,” said Christian “Campy” Campton of the Frisco-based KODI Rafting company. It’s his company’s — and many other outfitters’ — most popular trip.
He and other rafting company owners are excited about Udall’s proposition to turn the 22,000 acres around Browns Canyon into a national monument.
“It’s going to put Brown’s Canyon back on the map,” said Campton, a third-generation boater originally from Buena Vista.
He’s witnessed first-hand the ebb and flow of the industry, which is dependant on snowfall.
Last year the Colorado rafting industry struggled with bad press related to low river flows as a result of a low snow year. Area rafting outfits reported a estimated 20 percent to 30 percent drop in business, even though, they said, there was still good rafting to be had.
This year’s river flows are already well above last year and closer to normal. Rafting company owners are expecting a bounce-back year.
Representatives from the Colorado River Outfitters Association (CROA) as well as the Arkansas River Outfitters Association (AROA), said they believe the national monument proposition could also be a boost that will lead to continued economic growth for the industry and small towns like Buena Vista and Salida, which are dependant on tourism.
Salida has already seen a rebirth in recent years with a number of restaurants and art galleries revitalizing the old downtown. The belief is that the national monument status will continue to foster that growth.
“Tourists look for national monuments,” Udall’s communications director Mike Saccone said.
The concern with changing the land status of an area like Browns Canyon is what it will mean in terms of regulation. Typically national monuments are run by the National Parks Service, but the senator’s plan is different, according to Saccone.
“The bill will maintain the current management structure,” he said. Currently the land is jointly operated by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.
This should mean little change, beyond national recognition. CROA and AROA members view it as a entirely positive proposition. Beyond tourism, the biggest benefit to Browns Canyon is that, said Campton, “It’s going to be protected.”
Udall wants to have the area preserved for generations to come. The 22,000-acre proposition will include 10,500 new acres of wilderness, protecting the numerous species of wildlife native to the canyon. All existing usage policies, including commercial rafting, are expected to remain unchanged.
Saccone said that the senator plans to introduce the bill later this summer, and they expect the bill to be passed within the next two years. The process started a year ago and is ongoing with input from the community and interested parties.
Campton flew to Washington, D.C., last year to help lobby with the Wilderness Society.
Udall’s camp said input has been extremely positive. To date the senator has participated in a number of information-gathering community engagements. Saccone said a number of organizations have supported the bill.
“Our hope is that we can get this across the finish line this session of Congress,” he said.
“Establishing the Browns Canyon National Monument is about more than protecting this stunning area; it’s also about creating jobs and boosting Chaffee County’s local economy.”
Sen. Mark Udall in an editorial to the Pueblo Chieftain