Rivers For Recreation, Part 2: Rivers of Divide

By Jacob Baynham April 13, 2015
Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a four-part series:
Part 1: The Fab Five       Part 3:  Hustle and Flow    Part 4: Coming Soon


On Feb. 19, 2015, President Obama announced America’s three newest national monuments. In addition to a site in Hawaii and one in Chicago, he declared that Browns Canyon, a fly fishing and whitewater rafting haven on Colorado’s Arkansas River should be preserved. A broad-based coalition of river conservationists rejoiced at the successful culmination of more than 10 years of advocacy.

To Protect and Serve

Not everyone was happy, though. Republican representatives in Congress called it a “big-government land grab.” During his time in office, Obama has put 260 million acres of land and water under federal protection, more than any other president. And you can expect him to do it again, says Kevin Colburn, national stewardship director for the river advocacy group American Whitewater. “I think we’ll see more presidential designations of national monuments,” he says. “That’s almost a sure bet.”

In 2013, Colorado’s two senators, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, introduced legislation to protect a similar area on the Arkansas, but they couldn’t get the necessary votes to pass it in Congress. That’s because some politicians are wary of designating land as protected wilderness because it precludes that land from development and resource extraction that can be valuable to local and regional economies.

In Colorado, however, the coalition that favored protecting Browns Canyon said the natural river, itself, brings money to the region. The Colorado River Outfitters Association estimates that rafting alone brings $60 million annually to the local economy. The new national monument designation protects that revenue stream, while maintaining the river’s original grazing and water rights.

“You have this river that’s an economic and recreational engine for the community,” Colburn says. “And the community said, ‘We don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.’”

Industry Advocacy

There are several ways to protect rivers from development. Congress can designate them as Wild and Scenic Rivers, which protects them from dams, preserves their water quality, maintains their special values and engages local stakeholders in creating a comprehensive river management plan. Click here to learn more. Currently, less than a quarter of 1 percent of our rivers are protected as Wild and Scenic, according to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Congress can also designate Wilderness Areas, which come with more restrictions.

OIA works closely with various organizations to support legislation that will protect land and waterways that are important to outdoor participants. OIA is working hard in Washington, D.C. to guarantee the reauthorization and full funding, at $900 million annually, of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The LWCF was originally created in 1965 and is up for reauthorization this year. Without reauthorization, public-land access and protection as well as state and local funding for parks are at stake.

In the future, Colburn expects to see more Wilderness Areas paired with National Recreation Areas, or National Conservation Areas, an arrangement that fully protects some land while offering a measure of flexibility in managing the rest.

“Rather than having a binary approach of Wilderness [Area] or complete multiuse federal land,” he says, “there’s interest in some shades of gray, where values that are important to communities might be protected.” In some cases, that may mean keeping some land open for logging or other resource extraction. This type of paired designation has a better chance of success in Congress.

Ownership and Opposition

Many interests currently compete for ownership rights around America’s rivers. First, there are those who favor privatization, which is eroding the long-held belief that only land can be owned but rivers are for everyone. Then there’s the movement to turn control of federal land over to states, which may open the door to excessive development and restricted public access. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry is encroaching on the Amite River in Louisiana and the Gates of Lodore on the Green River in Colorado. At the same time, power companies are more interested in building hydroelectric dams on rivers, especially in the West, where reservoirs might help mitigate water shortages. And still other rivers, such as Colorado’s Yampa and Green, are threatened by “dewatering,” in which a portion of a river’s flow is diverted via a pipe to cities that need it.

“It’s just a chunk,” Colburn says of the portion of water removed via dewatering, “but if you take too many chunks, then you’re just left with a bone and no steak.”

What’s more, Colburn says, the current trend of shrinking federal budgets doesn’t look promising for funding the Forest Service, Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. “We’ve seen a lot of downsizing in the workforce and the ability of land managers to do planning and have people out monitoring campsites,” Colburn says. That means that even when a river is “protected,” there’s not always someone around to notice when a violation is taking place.

A Clear Solution

Colburn says one trend of land use around rivers is almost guaranteed, and that is the diverse local support for their protection. “The point is there are still communities out there that want these kind of protections to go through,” he says. “They will stack up. They will be popularly supported.”

And when communities rally around the places they love, Colburn says, it brings disparate people together. “It almost always has to be a collaborative solution to get a conservation outcome,” he says. “It’s never been rammed down anyone’s throat. Now everyone’s trying to agree on things before they get to Congress. That makes it safe for legislators to support something.”

Colburn is optimistic that legislators will support what the people support—the protection of America’s clean, wild, natural rivers.