July 4, 2008

Struggle Endures to Protect Browns Canyon

By Ed Dentry

Let freedom ring. To say the view from a granite knob high above the east bank of the Arkansas River inspires patriotic sentiment would be an understatement.

This is where our country lives - or at least, it's one of the remnants we've beaten it back to. It is quiet in this slice of juniper and pine highland across the verdant valley from the Collegiate Peaks. Even the Stellers jays show a measure of respect.

A bill in Congress would keep it that way, quiet. Free for American descendants to visit, for bighorn sheep, for wintering elk and deer, for mountain lions and people to go hunting and for the bear we spotted rooting in aspen shade.

A huge army of Browns Canyon Wilderness supporters would like to keep it that way - free from the erosion and intrusion of internal combustion engines, which have invaded lands north, south and adjacent to this modest parcel.

"They want it all. Period," Maysville resident Bill Sustrich, 81, says of the gasoline jockeys.

Sustrich is chief whip in a long and needlessly complicated drive to draw the line at a mere 20,000 acres of wildlands.

That's the modest size of this gnarly niche of gulches, hoodoos and pygmy forest. Unfortunately, it is sandwiched between territory resembling ATV Carnival World. Virtually all public lands to the south are open to ATVs. Due north, a 100,000-acre travel management area is dedicated to the whining wheelie sports.

"So they've got 100,000 acres to romp around in, with over 195 miles worth of trails," says Michael Kunkel, a founder of Friends of Browns Canyon.

"And now they want more because they've trashed that one," adds Jerry Mallett, a Chaffee County commissioner and career wildlife professional.

A previous wilderness bill introduced in 2005 by former U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley bogged down after attacks from ATV defenders - including, curiously, the National Rifle Association, whose magazines advertise the things.

"I hate to see the NRA take that stand because we're just losing too much wildlife habitat," Mallett says.

The Hefley bill's chief opponent was one local motorhead who happens to rent ATVs to tourists. Wilderness supporters included outfitters, rafters, anglers, horsemen, hunters and Colorado's entire congressional delegation, Republicans and Democrats.

This May, U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar introduced another Browns Canyon Wilderness Bill, S.3066. Everyone is on board again, except U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, of Colorado Springs.

Scrambling up the knob, Sustrich kids his partners about being "jackrabbits." The wiry octogenarian's cap says Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. A life member, he has fed his family on big game and conservation ethics.

He wears a revolver on his hip as a symbol of pride in the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming the Second Amendment's individual right to bear arms.

Sustrich is a Life-Benefactor member of the NRA. "I am NRA for 2A," he roots. But that's where his loyalty departs - at least from the gun group's detached hierarchy in Washington. "Ivory tower types," he calls them.

He invited some of NRA's suits to tour Browns Canyon, but no one showed. Meanwhile, support of NRA members for Browns Canyon Wilderness has swelled almost to the point of rebellion.

The sticking point is a little- used, steep, dead-end track, the Turrett Trail, which inserts itself three miles into the narrow, proposed wilderness. Motor advocates call it a "cherry stem" and want it to stay open to engines.

Kunkel calls that "a ruse to kill the wilderness." A Forest Service road already permits vehicles along the entire eastern flank of the area. Sustrich calls the cherry stem "a dagger."

"If that dagger stays in there, I'll have nothing to do with it," he says. "I've decided to go on the warpath."

He is pleading for even more support for the Salazar bill, particularly from NRA members.

He is signing up champions for Browns Canyon Wilderness, via e- mail at [email protected] He requests copies be sent to [email protected], for forwarding to Salazar. Include your name, address and NRA membership number, he says.

It's about freedom for a tiny piece of land with a great American vista, freedom for wildlife, hunters and hikers - free from further liberal applications of wheeled destruction.

Originally published by Ed Dentry, Rocky Mountain News.

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