Arkansas River/Browns Canyon National Monument designation

Posted: Sep 18, 2019

Colorado Senator Mark Udall is asking for public comments on a proposal to create the Arkansas River Canyon National Monument and Browns Canyon Wilderness in Colorado's Chaffee County.

A National Monument can be created by the President through the Antiquities Act, or by an act of Congress. According to Senator Udall, the timeline for this proposal is open ended; however he did say that it could take several months, or longer, before legislation is introduced in the Senate. "I don't have a deadline. Of course if we're standing here 10 years from now, we've fallen short.”

Senator Udall’s proposal would create a National Monument designation for land on both sides of the Arkansas River between Salida and Buena Vista, and create a Wilderness designation for Browns Canyon on the east side of the river. Senator Udall has proposed 3 different options for designating the area as a National Monument and Wilderness. (Read more about the proposal here.)

There is no difference between the 3 proposals other than the size of the area that will be designated National Monument and Wilderness. There has been no indication as to what activities will actually be restricted in the area under the designation, as these restrictions will come from the language of the final National Monument and Wilderness proclamation.

However, the main topic of debate here is not which of the 3 options to choose, but whether or not it will be beneficial to designate the area as a national monument at all.

Effects of a National Monument and Wilderness Designation:

A National Monument or Wilderness designation can have a direct environmental effect on an area through the restrictions that are created. Once an area is designated a National Monument or Wilderness, the land is protected by limitations on certain environmentally detrimental activities in order to protect it for future generations.

Monument proclamations can limit or prohibit both developmental and recreational land use. Limitations or prohibitions may be included in either the National Monument or Wilderness proclamations themselves, which may accompany administration statements, management plans developed by the agencies to govern monument lands, agency policies, or other sources.

Most monument proclamations have barred new mineral leases, mining claims, prospecting or exploration activities, and oil, gas, and geothermal leases. This has been accomplished by language to withdraw the lands within the monuments from entry, location, selection, sale, leasing, or other disposition under public land laws, mining laws, and mineral and geothermal leasing laws.

Using motorized and mechanized vehicles off-road, except for emergency or authorized purposes, is also prohibited under the proclamations for many newer monuments. Proclamations can close off vehicular travel on designated routes, or close off routes entirely for vehicular use in the monument.

Many proclamations have also restricted recreational activities in order to protect monument resources, such as hunting, fishing, grazing, and using motorized and mechanized vehicles off-road.

In regards to the current Arkansas River proposal, there is no indication of exactly what restrictions will be implemented. However, given the history of restrictions that have been typically implemented, it is safe to assume that similar restrictions may be implemented in the Arkansas River National Monument proclamation as well.

Effects on the Arkansas River and Browns Canyon Area:

These restrictions could have a very important impact for the wildlife in this area. The Colorado Division of Wildlife identified Browns Canyon as an important wintering ground for both deer and elk. The sheer ruggedness, proximity to water and lower elevation also provides critical habitat for many other wildlife including peregrine falcons, golden eagles, great horned owls, bobcats and other big game species. Also, there are more than 6,000 miles of officially designated roads and motorized trails open to ATV use within 100 miles of Browns Canyon, which makes Browns Canyon one of the only intact low-elevation big game habitats left on public lands in the region. If land use is restricted because of a National Monument and Wilderness designation, it would help to protect the habitat of the abundance of wildlife in the area.

There are also many possible positive economic effects to an area that is designated as National Monument and Wilderness. Historically, lands that are protected as National Monuments have become long lasting economic engines for the communities and states in which they are located thanks to increased tourism, recreation, and the relocation of businesses and people.

In Colorado alone, activities such as hiking, skiing, paddling and fishing contribute more than $10 billion annually to the economy. These activities support some 100,000 Colorado jobs and generate $500 million in state tax revenue. These recreational resources attract visitors from all over the nation and the world.

Also, many businesses thrive off of the “quality of life” benefits of these areas. There are plenty of highly skilled workers who enjoy outdoor recreational activities such as hiking, climbing, backpacking, fishing, etc. For companies looking for a place to set up shop, having the lure of these activities helps them to become more marketable by locating in a more desirable place to work and live. This creates a draw for better workers, which in turn could bring in both a profitable business and workers that will help to stimulate the surrounding economy.

These same benefits will likely occur in the Arkansas River and Browns Canyon area. Earlier this year an economic analysis was done by the non-profit group Headwaters Economics on the economic importance of National Monuments to local communities. The group’s associate director, Ben Alexander, offered his predictions for the socioeconomic effects a monument designation would have on Chafee County. “Over the last several decades, public lands have been correlated with growth of personal income. In rural areas, public lands are much more important economically.”

Alexander described Chaffee County as an aging population with smaller families, a county where people are not moving in and deaths have been outstripping births in the last decade. For Chaffee County to succeed, Alexander suggested capitalizing on the 80 percent of public lands that are available in the county. He also mentioned Salida and Buena Vista’s “natural positioning” as gateways on the north and south ends of the proposed approximately 20,000 acres of Browns Canyon National Monument.

However, there are also possible downsides to having a local National Monument and Wilderness designation. Restrictions on land use can be viewed as a threat to economic development. Local communities can be hurt by the loss of jobs and tax revenues that result from prohibiting or restricting future mineral exploration, timber development, or other natural resource development activities.

Monument designation can also result in new constraints on the development of existing mineral and energy leases, claims, and permits. Those that are engaged in mineral activities may have to adhere to a higher standard of environmental review, which will pose a higher cost of mitigation to ensure compatibility with the monument designation. Provisions on grazing have also been controversial in some cases. Some assert that grazing has been unnecessarily curtailed while others claim that grazing has not been sufficiently limited to prevent ecological damage.

Furthermore, creating a national monument designation can turn the area into a recreationalist's destination, bringing with it heavy advertising by the local tourism industry, trails, outhouses, and parking areas—thus destroying the natural beauty of the area meant to be protected.


The Arkansas River and Browns Canyon should be granted National Monument and Wilderness status. I have been to the area and it is truly spectacular, very much worthy of National Monument recognition.  I also believe that the benefits of a National Monument and Wilderness designation will outweigh the possible costs to those most affected.

It is impossible to know conclusively whether or not the overall effect of the economic impact on the surrounding area will be positive. However, given the historic impact National Monument designation has had in places such as Utah, I believe the positive effects on the surrounding community near the Arkansas River would be comparable.

Furthermore, despite the recent state of our current national economy, the outdoor industry in particular is still seeing a lot of growth, maybe even due to the struggling national economy. When people have less disposable income they are more likely to turn to more affordable entertainment like outdoor recreation. With this continued growth in the outdoor industry there will be a growing need to protect land like the Arkansas River and Browns Canyon.

Browns Canyon is also limited in terms of commercially viable natural resources. Topography and low volumes per acre limit commercial opportunity for timber sales, there is no potential for oil and gas resources within the proposed wilderness due to the igneous nature of the geologic strata, and the BLM reports that the area has little or no mineralization of commercial value.

However, even if there were some economic value lost due to restricting activities such as mining, the value of recreational land is a much better long term source of economic growth. Mineral and other natural resources will eventually be depleted, while the resources of recreation and tourism in National Monument and Wilderness areas will last for as long as we choose to protect it. 

Finally, even if there are little or no economic benefits to surrounding communities, there will still be the positive impact of environmental protection. This provides unquantifiable benefits not only to the quality of life for those living there now, but all those in the future.

~TK Keith


Read news on the proposal.
See maps of the proposed wilderness boundaries.

Comment on national monument status for this area, and express a boundary preference.

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