What began in the 1970's as a review and evaluation for wilderness designation has become a jumble of information and falsehoods -- involving politicians, off-highway vehicle enthusiasts, wilderness proponents and the National Rifle Association.
If designated, the proposed Browns Canyon Wilderness Area in central Chaffee County would be one of the lowest elevation wilderness areas in Colorado and one of the few actual wilderness areas combining both U.S. Forest Service (USFS) as well Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land.
The area boasts a rugged, extremely varied ecosystem, rich species diversity, big game habitat and year-round access. It borders the Arkansas River next to one of the most popular whitewater runs in the nation.
Some 102,000 acres in the area were first identified as suitable for wilderness under the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE 1) in the 1970's by the Salida District of the Pike/San Isabel National Forest but never went beyond the study phase. In 1980 the BLM did identify 7,003 acres of Browns Canyon as a Wilderness Study Area -- to be managed as wilderness until a Congressional decision is made -- later adding an additional 913 acres of BLM land around Railroad Gulch at the southern border of the currently proposed wilderness area.
The proposed wilderness area, east of the Arkansas River between Salida and Nathrop, consists of steep gulches of red granite hoodoos and metamorphic rock. Pinyon and juniper trees thrive in the section adjacent to the river, gradually transitioning through ravines and drainages to Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and aspen trees in the higher elevation. Natural inhabitants of the area include bobcat, mountain lion, fox, pine marten elk, mule deer and black bear. Multiple raptor species have been sighted, including great-horned owls and golden eagles. Between 1980 and 1985 the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) introduced 60 bighorn sheep into Browns Canyon.
As for exploitable natural resources, Browns Canyon offers little or no commercial value for timber due to its rugged terrain and only spotty stands of harvestable trees. A mineral evaluation by the BLM determined minimal commercial mining potential and there are currently no active patented or unpatented claims within the boundaries. Due to the igneous nature of the geologic strata there is little or no potential for oil and gas exploration and development. Limited grazing does still occur within the boundaries of the wilderness study area and would continue under provisions of the Wilderness Act.
Some opponents of the designation describe the area as not "pristine" due to some minimal historic activity and short term habitation from a century ago. The Wilderness Act of 1964, which created the legal definition of wilderness and never uses the word pristine, states, "Where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." It continues, "Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation." And, " ... generally appear to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable." A requirement of being "pristine" is not mentioned, and some evidence of historic human disturbance is allowable.
The original proposal of 34,762 acres was whittled down to 20,025 due to compromises made for motorized recreation, dispersed camping and river outfitters State and private land issues and requests by the USFS and the BLM among others. In fact, part of the original proposal was surrendered to the off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts and became part of the 100,000 acre Fourmile Motorized Area, allowing for motorcycle and OHV use in an area north of the land currently proposed.
When former Congressman Joel Hefley first introduced the Browns Canyon Wilderness legislation it was supported by every single member of the Colorado delegation, including even Marilyn Musgrave and Tom Tancredo.
After a long list of compromises to the proposal, the bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Wayne Allard and Rep. Hefley, was finally put forward in 2006. Its passage was urged by the editors of the Denver Post who considered it "a worthy legislative 'monument' to cap Hefley's career" further stating, "by protecting wildlife habitat, would be a boon to hunters and anglers," but, in the 11th hour, an objection from the National Rifle Association (NRA), based on the complaint of one member, a Chaffee County resident who objected to his inability to drive all-terrain vehicles in the area. Ultimately this contributed to sinking the legislation and despite clear and overwhelming local support for the designation, the bill did not go to a vote in the House.
Also in 2006 another effort to compromise the bill by offering to "cherry-stem" the historic Turret Trail Route, which would have allowed motorized access along a narrow corridor within the wilderness boundaries, was rejected by the NRA who instead wanted a 400-foot-wide corridor for their ATV activities. Proponents of the legislation are concerned that motorized use will have the unintended consequence of scaring wildlife and forcing them deeper into the backcountry.
Passing the legislation was hoped to be outgoing Republican Representative Joel Hefley's legacy, but a bitter primary race in 2006 between Helfey's choice for the house seat, Jeff Crank, and the ultimate winner, Doug Lamborn, created enough animosity to eliminate any enthusiasm for the legislation on the part of the newly-elected congressman.
"The Browns Canyon area is quintessential Colorado," said former Senator Ken Salazar, now U.S. Secretary of the Interior. "It would be a travesty if Browns Canyon is not designated as wilderness" he said in a 2006 Denver Post editorial.
In June of 2008, then Senator Salazar renewed his efforts to get the designation and the Denver Post ran another editorial calling the study area "A priceless part of Colorado" but the 109th Congress adjourned without taking action on the bill.
When asked his view, Colorado Senator Mark Udall responded, "I've supported the Browns Canyon wilderness designation for some time. To further that effort, I've circulated a draft bill, which I have titled the 'Joel Hefley Browns Canyon Wilderness Act' in honor of his work on this proposal while he was representing this area in the Congress, and I'm now waiting to get input from all of the interested stakeholders and the public. The area that would be designated by my bill has been looked at for its wilderness character for many years, and it has all of the qualities that make it eligible for wilderness, such as critical wildlife habitat, and opportunities for solitude and recreation. I intend to continue to work with the County, the BLM and the Forest Service, and those interested in seeing this area protected."
As for Congressman Lamborn's current attitude on the study area, in a letter to Senator Udall dated July 21, 2009, he states, "Turret Trail has been the focal point due to the nature of its location within Browns Canyon. Quite simply, it is the easiest way into and out of the area. It makes Browns Canyon accessible to people with disability, physical impediment, or just limited time to enjoy an outdoor experience. I favor "cherry-stemming" the entire length of Turret Trail for motorized and non-motorized access. Hunters often find it necessary to utilize appropriate Off Highway Vehicles to safely transport their trophies out of the area. The National Rifle Association, like me, opposes Wilderness designation as long as there is no community consensus on this issue."
Despite repeated compromises on the part of wilderness proponents, the off-road community has been unwilling to alter its position and continues to stall the legislation with the help of the NRA, but a current draft bill being proposed in the U.S. Congress by Colorado U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette -- The Colorado Wilderness Act of 2009 -- could include the Browns Canyon study area. The legislation proposes designation of nearly 890,000 total acres of Colorado public land as federally protected wilderness. At the time of this writing the legislation is only in draft form and it is not known when or if it will go up for vote.