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Rafters float down the Arkansas River inside Browns Canyon near Salida, Colo., on Tuesday, June 24, 2014. Colorado legislators are pushing to have Congress or President Obama declare the area a national monument, protecting it from gold mining and development. / Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY

SALIDA, Colo. - A proposal to permanently designate as wilderness tens of thousands of acres of canyons and mountains flanking the Arkansas River in central Colorado is being complicated by gold mining claims.

The federal Bureau of Land Management since 1980 has managed the Browns Canyon area between Salida and Buena Vista as a wilderness study area. As part of that "study," the BLM prevented anyone from mining in the area. But in December 2011, the ban on mining expired and two groups quickly filed five mining claims along the river, which is heavily used for white-water rafting and fly fishing.

The BLM is now trying to get a judge to throw out the claims so it can prevent mining in the area. If mining begins, it would further complicate efforts to protect the area from new roads, more mining and potential development. A dozen rafting companies take tens of thousands of tourists through Browns Canyon each summer as melting snows create a surge of white water, funneling millions of dollars into the local economy.

"All we're trying to do is preserve it as it is," said raft guide Bill Dvorak, who has been leading trips through the canyon for 30 years. "The biggest concern that we have right now is these mining claims. And they're in places where they could dredge the whole river."

Members of Colorado's congressional delegation from both parties have pushed to have Congress designate the area as an approximately 20,000-acre national monument under a compromise plan that would keep open more than 180 miles of off-road trails for ATVs and snowmobiles. Sponsors say there's little evidence Congress plans to act on the proposal anytime soon, so they're now considering whether to ask President Obama to use his authority to declare the area a national monument.

While only Congress can create a national park, both Congress and U.S. presidents can create national monuments. The first national monument, Devils Tower in Wyoming, was created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 because he felt Congress was moving too slowly in protecting it.



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Gold claims impede Colo. wilderness protection effort

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