Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series about Browns Canyon.
With a Republican congressman as an ally, the Friends of Browns Canyon thought their wilderness proposal for Browns Canyon was all but passed. But the legislative process in Washington would prove to be more complicated.
Before submitting his wilderness bill, Rep. Joel Hefley of the 5th Congressional District held a public meeting in 2005 at Chaffee County Fairgrounds. The majority of the 60-some people who showed up were in agreement.
Hefley said he was seeking unanimous support – not just the conservationists but the ranchers, hunters, rafters and county commissioners. “If everyone wasn’t on board, I didn’t want to force it,” he said.
Hefley said that in the beginning support was a mixed bag. “I didn’t want to impose it from on high,” he said. “These people lived there every day, and I didn’t. But we finally ended up with a pretty reasonable consensus.”
The bill was drafted, introduced to Congress in November and scheduled for a hearing in the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, which falls under the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Dick Scar and Michael Kunkel testified before the subcommittee in July 2006, calling Browns Canyon an island of wilderness surrounded by higher-impact recreation. Mark Udall, who was then a congressman, and Hefley were present.
The hearing went well, Hefley said, and it was passed along favorably to the full committee, where it would have to be voted out before seeing the House floor.
Though the legislative process had been rolling right along up to that point, that was where the bill died.
Much has been made over the National Rifle Association’s influence over the bill, Kunkel said, but more than the NRA was at work in the halls of Congress.
“Even though nobody had a problem with Browns, we got involved with politics that were totally out of our control,” he said.
The NRA wanted Hefley to keep the Turret Trail open in his proposal – its objection aimed to maintain access for hunters. The NRA turned to Sen. Wayne Allard, saying it would oppose his coordinated Senate bill unless the trail remained open.
While reports at the time pointed only to the NRA’s opposition to the bill, Hefley recently spoke to The Mail about political elements that had nothing to do with Browns Canyon, but rather bad blood among lawmakers.
Texas Republican Tom DeLay was House majority leader when Hefley chaired the House Ethics Committee in 2004.
Though they were both Republicans, Hefley came down hard on DeLay when allegations arose of misuse of his office. The Ethics Committee launched a formal investigation into the allegations, which included DeLay’s participation at a fundraiser for an energy company with much at stake in upcoming House decisions.
Regardless of party affiliation, Hefley said he was going to “let the chips fall where they may.”
The inquiry resulted only in a formal reprimand, but it also stirred up resentment.
“DeLay liked to surround himself with supporters,” Hefley said. And when it came time for the chair of the House Committee on Resources to be selected, DeLay selected California Rep. Richard Pombo, a supporter of his. In doing so, DeLay jumped him over several congressmen with seniority over Pombo, including Hefley.
“I wasn’t happy with that, and obviously (DeLay) wasn’t happy with me,” Hefley said.
Hefley said it was his sense that DeLay had control over the chairman, and he wasn’t going to let the Browns Wilderness bill pass because of his resentment against Hefley.
Hefley said he never could get the Resource Committee chairman, Pombo, to schedule the bill for introduction with the full committee. The bill would not take another legislative step forward.
At the 11th hour Jerry Mallett negotiated an agreement with the NRA to remove the road. “But we ran out of time; Hefley wasn’t running for re-election.” Kunkel said.
“Hefley was retiring, and the Congress we were trying to deal with met 50 days less than the do-nothing Congress of Harry Truman,” Mallett said.
But Mallett, a Chaffee County commissioner at the time, was still hopeful that they would be working with a more sympathetic Congress the next year.
However, Republican Doug Lamborn was elected in 2006 to fill Hefley’s position following a bitter primary fight in which Hefley backed Lamborn opponent Jeff Crank. That resulted in bad blood between Hefley and Lamborn. Hefley would call Lamborn’s campaign “sleazy.”
The Denver Post reported in 2012 that Hefley called Lamborn a “knucklehead,” when hearing that Lamborn said he’d gone beyond Hefley’s legacy.
Upon election, one of Lamborn’s first statements was that he would not support a Browns Canyon Wilderness. From the beginning, Lamborn claimed he objected to the lack of consensus on Browns Canyon and the restriction of access to hunters.
In 2007 all three Chaffee commissioners supported Browns. Lamborn held separate public meetings in Salida with the proponents and then opponents of the Browns Canyon Wilderness. Between meetings he met with county commissioners and Salida city officials.
Opponents even asked Lamborn to pass legislation to rescind the Browns Canyon Wilderness Study Area, so motorized use could again penetrate the area, said Kunkel.
“In 2008 we were still carrying a torch of hope,” Kunkel said. “Mallett was still a county commissioner, the Democrats had both the House and Senate in D.C., and (John) Salazar was still our U.S. senator.”
Democratic Sen. John Salazar held a meeting in Buena Vista Aug. 13, 2008 – at the same time as a Leadville off-road rally.
“The rally brought all these people from outside the area,” said Kunkel.
“We’d always taken every meeting by storm, and suddenly they truckloaded them in,” said Pete Bond. “The off-roaders started to sense a slam dunk coming at them.”
With a huge number of opposition voices showing up out of the blue, The Mountain Mail then reported there was no consensus on Browns.
At 2008’s end, Salazar became secretary of the interior, and Mallett lost his county commissioner race. That, along with Lamborn’s opposition to wilderness in the area, made the canyon’s future look bleak.
Kunkel called 2009 “the doldrums” for the Friends of Browns Canyon. “The national and state environmental groups considered us dead in the water.”
Even getting volunteers was difficult. When the Friends went to Environment Colorado, the organization wanted them to come to a camp to recruit volunteers. “We couldn’t even get volunteers to come to us; we had to go to them,” said Kunkel.
“But we didn’t give up,” he said. They started a years-long effort to build a business supporter list, which would later play an important role.
During that year Mark Udall, who was now a U.S. senator, presented them a glimmer of hope in the form of a bill. He introduced what he titled the Joel Hefley Browns Canyon Wilderness Bill, calling it a tribute to Hefley’s service in office.
“But it died as soon as he printed it,” said Kunkel.
During that time the Friends were confronting groups claiming the area was littered with mines. “We went out and looked at every supposed mine site, took pictures of the mines outside of the proposed wilderness area. Tom Sobal in particular put in hundreds of hours of work in the field.”
The Friends presented their findings, that the mines in the area lay outside the proposed boundary, to Lamborn, to The Mail, in public meetings. “There were no mines in the area that had been closed by the state of Colorado, which indicate a horizontal or vertical shaft of 13 or more feet, nor were there any patented mining claims or private claims,” said Kunkel.
In September 2010 Fremont County commissioners held a public meeting on Browns Canyon with Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette and Lamborn. The commissioners supported DeGette’s latest wilderness bill, and unlike previous DeGette wilderness bills, this one involved a real coordinated effort with the Friends on its Browns Canyon section.
The next day Lamborn and DeGette visited Browns Canyon via the Turret Trail. “This was a first, and with the U.S. Senate and House controlled by Democrats, with all of DeGette’s land selections in Democrats’ districts with the exception of Lamborn, things looked promising for the first time in years,” Kunkel said.
However, the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District vehemently opposed other areas in the bill, such as Badger Creek, Grape Creek and Beaver Creek, he said.
The water conservancy district voted unanimously to oppose the bill, which effectively killed the bill as multiple members live in Fremont County and have tremendous clout, said Kunkel.
In 2011, Sobal took their growing business supporter list to a public lands conference in California, and that started drawing attention – and funding. The Friends were at a turning point.
The Friends of Browns Canyon became an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit and created a board of directors for the first time in 2012 and hired their first executive director.
That year, Udall proposed taking a different approach by pursuing a national monument for Browns Canyon. It would designate 22,000 acres for the national monument, 10,500 of which would be wilderness.
Udall even led a hike in the canyon on the Catkin Gulch Trail and later that day held a public meeting at Mount Princeton Hot Springs.
In April 2013, Udall and Lamborn held a public meeting at Noah’s Ark Whitewater Rafting in Nathrop, drawing more than 220 residents to discuss Udall’s proposal for Browns Canyon.
After the national monument designation, Lamborn would say there was not enough public involvement in the process.
At the end of 2013 Udall introduced the Browns Canyon National Monument and Wilderness Act of 2013 in the Senate. In mid-2014 the U.S. Senate National Parks Subcommittee held a hearing on the bill.
But the bill went no further in the Senate, and in the 2014 election Udall was defeated by Republican Cory Gardner.
Along with Sen. Michael Bennet, who co-sponsored Udall’s bill, Udall urged President Barack Obama to consider using the Antiquities Act to designate Browns Canyon a national monument, sidestepping the congressional route that had failed for the last decade to bring the project full circle.
Udall and Bennet appeared with top land management officials at a public meeting Dec. 6 before a packed house at Salida SteamPlant. An audience of 500 people largely voiced support for the national monument.
Lamborn sent a message to the meeting with concerns that Congress would be bypassed with the Antiquities Act and voices from both sides of the issue wouldn’t be heard. Udall countered that every president but one since the act’s inception had used it to create national monuments.
White House officials reported Feb. 18 the president would use the Antiquities Act to declare Browns Canyon a national monument.
Kunkel said there were some clues leading up to the announcement. The Dec. 6 meeting had gone so “swimmingly well,” he said. And the Forest Service was soon calling him for information on the canyon’s history, how boundaries were determined and for photos of the area.
“They were playing it close to the chest,” he said, “but there was speculation.”
The next day Obama signed the proclamation officially making Browns Canyon a national monument.
“I think it’s going to be a really good thing for Chaffee County and the state,” Hefley said. “The fact that Udall followed through with it, that he didn’t rush into it, I appreciate him doing that,” he said.
“Browns Canyon has a rugged and unique beauty that attracts outdoor enthusiasts from around the world,” said Bennet, “and it will now be protected so people can enjoy hiking, climbing, camping and rafting in the heart of the Rockies for years to come. Susan and I hope to bring the girls in the near future.”
When asked if the Friends would continue, even after the national monument designation, to pursue wilderness protection for Browns Canyon, the advocates glanced at each other before answering.
They responded that the Browns Canyon WSA was created because there are recognized wilderness characteristics in the area. As long as it’s a Wilderness Study Area, it’s supposed to be managed as a wilderness, they said.
It’s tough to get wilderness designation through Congress, but that’s the only way to do it, they said. The president can’t do anything when it comes to “the big W.”
But later Kunkel conceded: “Wilderness was always the goal. It’s still the goal. We’d like to see this through to that end.”