Rep. Joel Hefley's push to permanently protect Browns Canyon from development appears to be sputtering out amid opposition from the National Rifle Association and like-minded groups.
The NRA hopes to keep 20,025 acres of land flanking the Arkansas River, near Salida, from being designated as wilderness.
"Basically, we feel that the bill would drastically reduce access to the area for hunters and sportsmen, especially those who are elderly," says Ashley Varner, an NRA spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. "Without roads in the area, it would make it nearly impossible to transport out large game."
House Resolution 4235 would forever ban roads, gun use, off-road vehicles and other development in Browns Canyon, which would be made up of a combination of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land. Currently, hunting, shooting and off-road vehicles are allowed in the 7,921-acre Forest Service swath.
The bill, introduced last November, has been praised by an array of conservationists, river-rafting companies, hikers, birdwatchers and others. And the idea of protecting the canyon has been talked about for decades; it gained a foothold in 1992, when the BLM noted its "spectacular scenery" and "outstanding opportunities ... for primitive, unconfined recreation and solitude."
Additionally, every member of Colorado's congressional delegation is either cosponsoring the legislation or strongly supporting it.
"[Hefley's] worked hard to do this right," says John Stansfield, coordinator for the Central Colorado Wilderness Coalition, which includes groups like the Sierra Club. "He built support."
Hefley's office did not return calls seeking comment.
Off-road groups also have raised concerns about Turret Road, an old stagecoach line that would be closed if Browns Canyon becomes wilderness, says Mike Sugaski of the Salida Forest Service Ranger District.
Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., who has introduced mirror legislation in the Senate, is listening to off-road groups and other opponents, but still strongly supports the bill, says Allard spokesman Steve Wymer.
"We're open to any changes or suggestions that might help it go through," he says, adding that the bill appears to be stalled in the House Resource Committee. That committee is chaired by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., whose legislative maneuvering long has frustrated environmentalists.
A spokesman for the committee failed to return a call.
Whatever is delaying the bill, the NRA, which has allied with a Salida veterans group and a Buena Vista hunting club, among others, doesn't see room for compromise, Varner says. She challenges bill language that describes the canyon as "pristine," citing old paths that letter carriers once used for bringing mail through the canyon.
The area, a home to bighorn sheep, elk, deer, raptors and more, is nonetheless pristine, maintains Stansfield, who says Varner is engaged in a "ridiculous" ploy to derail the bill. He concedes that some recreation opportunities on Turret Road will be lost, but says the big picture that the area won't face a slow death from increased use is more important.
Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colorado, the only Colorado lawmaker not signed on as a cosponsor, wants the bill amended to include "consensus" language concerning water rights that Hefley supports, Salazar spokesman Cody Wertz says.
"Sen. Salazar is a strong supporter of the protection of those 20,000 acres," Wertz adds.
Congress is on break and returns to session two days after the Nov. 7 election. That leaves Hefley with about seven weeks to advance the bill before he retires. If he fails, Stansfield says, the effort to designate Browns Canyon wilderness probably will be lost a shame, especially since Hefley has rarely earned praise for environmental initiatives.
"He's never proposed a wilderness bill in 20 years," says Stansfield. "It would be an honor for him before he retires in December. It's really down to the finish line now."
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