Colorado’s Brown’s Canyon is best left alone

While I greatly respect Garett Reppenhagen’s military service, and I’m glad his post-deployment visits to Colorado’s Brown’s Canyon helped ease his transition back to civilian life, he doesn’t speak for all Coloradans on the question of whether President Obama should designate this area a new national monument. Let me offer an alternative view, as someone who lives relatively close to the canyon and enjoys visiting there, but strongly opposes this unwarranted use of executive power.

Reppenhagen and other military personnel serve to defend the freedom-preserving system of checks and balances our founders designed. But this system is turned on its head when this or any president, from either party, unilaterally makes such designations, irrespective of what Congress or the host state thinks or wants. Although courts haven’t ruled this application of the Antiquities Act unlawful, such actions obviously run counter to the system of representative government that veterans like Reppenhagen are sworn to uphold.

{mosads}But that’s not the only reason he’s in error on this issue.

Creating new national monuments via executive order has in recent times become a lazy president’s way to build an instant “legacy,” simply by scratching pen on paper and misusing an outdated law (the Antiquities Act of 1906) that ought to be repealed if it can’t be reformed. Encouraging such actions only emboldens a president who already is stretching executive power to its limits, undermining the legislative branch along the way. And it most likely would have the opposite effect of what Reppenhagen and others intend, by drawing larger crowds and increasing the hassle factor for those who would like to keep enjoying this area in solitude.   

Organized green extremists naturally would cheer such an executive order: nothing pleases them more than seeing greater restrictions placed on the public’s use of “public lands.” But many Westerners understand that all such designations bring is more bureaucracy, more control, more mismanagement and micromanagement by our distant landlords in Washington. That’s why such designations aren’t always welcome and frequently stir controversy.

Does Brown’s Canyon really face some threat that justifies a higher level of federal protection? Is it a unique-enough landscape to earn “national monument” status? Will such a designation really serve to preserve the sense of peace and freedom canyon visitors relish? I believe the answer to these questions is “no.”

Supporters of the idea hint darkly about alleged threats to the canyon. But where are they? It’s been managed since 1980 as a “wilderness study area,” meaning it already enjoys a level of protection that most public lands lack. That’s protection enough to preserve its relatively primitive character from almost any threat imaginable. And any future threats that materialize (if any do) can be dealt with as they arise.

Managing the canyon as a “wilderness study area” already constitutes corner-cutting of a sort, since it’s a sly way for wilderness advocates and federal bureaucrats to establish de-facto wilderness while bypassing Congress and skirting the formal designation process. Not content to cut one corner, some now want to cut two or three, by getting Obama to wave his magic pen and make a designation that’s neither needed nor warranted. All without Congressional debate or any clear signal of what average Coloradans want.

Conferring “national monument” status on land that hasn’t even earned a legitimate “wilderness” designation seems like quite a leap; sort of like going straight to high school from elementary while skipping junior high.

Naming new national monuments willy-nilly, based on political whim rather than objective criteria, waters-down what such designations mean, eventually rendering them meaningless. If Brown’s Canyon rates as a national monument, almost any dramatic Western landscape does. Do we really want to further blur distinctions between “crown jewels” and costume jewelry?   

I can understand why Reppenhagen and others want Brown’s Canyon kept as is. I want that too. But maybe the best way to do that is to leave it as is, by not trying to “fix” what isn’t broken. Those who hope to draw bigger crowds through monument designation, while also maintaining the canyon’s sense of splendid isolation, want contradictory things. The quickest way to disturb the peace, draw more crowds, create more user conflicts and eventually ruin Brown’s Canyon is to have it declared a national monument.

Sean Paige is an outdoor enthusiast who lives and writes in Colorado Springs. Write him at


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