In February President Obama declared Colorado’s Browns Canyon a national monument. For Bill Dvorak, it was a long time coming.
No adventure is too grand for Bill Dvorak (MEdu’80).
He’s lived in Australia and New Zealand, worked as a climbing and scuba diving instructor and hiked the mountains of Nepal.
With a master’s degree in alternative and experimental education, he aims to teach people outside — while they’re hiking, climbing or rafting.
“I’ve always considered myself more of an educator than an entertainer,” Dvorak says.
The latest thrill? Inviting the President of the United States, in person, to whitewater raft with him in the newly designated Browns Canyon National Monument, one of the most sought-after whitewater rafting destinations in the U.S.
On Feb. 19, 2015, President Obama declared Colorado’s Browns Canyon a national monument, providing new federal protections for the land. Days later, Dvorak — president of the Friends of Browns Canyon advocacy group — and a handful of key supporters chatted with Obama in the Oval Office during the official signing of the proclamation.
For Dvorak, the moment in the White House was 23 years in the making.
As a whitewater rafting guide for 36 years, he’s led thrill-seekers thousands of times down the Arkansas River, which flows through Browns Canyon — a rugged landscape about 2.5 hours southwest of Denver, near Salida. The approximately 21,500-acre area serves as a vast playground for outdoor enthusiasts who seek adventure — hiking, biking, climbing — or tranquility — camping, fishing, nature viewing.
“It’s a spectacular and beautiful canyon,” says Dvorak, who has operated Dvorak Rafting and Kayak Expeditions with his wife, Jaci, since 1985.
But the majesty of the area had been increasingly threatened by off-road vehicles and private ownership. Dvorak has been a key leader in rallying community members, business owners and tourists to advocate for the canyon’s natural splendor and wildlife. As a member of the Friends of Browns Canyon group and its president for three years, he aided grassroots efforts to coordinate policy with politicians, write letters in support of bills, testify at public meetings and raise money.
Many heard his call, including CU-Boulder professor and evolutionary biologist Jeffry Mitton, who wrote several columns in Boulder’s Daily Camera newspaper about the canyon.
“When I’m down at Browns Canyon, it’s awfully quiet,” says Mitton, who travels to the canyon yearly to educate Dvorak’s river guides on natural history. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of watching swallows and swifts in the air.”
The road to preservation was long and often disappointing. In two decades of advocacy, Dvorak saw five pieces of legislation aimed at conserving the land fail.
In a final effort last fall, departing U.S. Senator Mark Udall and Senate colleague Michael Bennet, both of Colorado, urged the president to use the Antiquities Act, which authorizes him to declare national monuments without congressional approval. Obama has used the act to protect more than 260 million acres of public lands and waters — including southwestern Colorado’s Chimney Rock — more than any other president, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Their efforts worked, and in February Dvorak traveled to Washington, D.C., to join Bennet, U.S. Representatives from Colorado Diana DeGette and Jared Polis and other dignitaries in a moment of triumph.
At the White House Dvorak stood out in his getup — a cowboy hat, leather coat and cowboy boots.
After President Obama signed the proclamation and expressed interest in seeing the canyon, Dvorak handed him a business card.
“The President said he is going to have a lot of time on his hands in a couple of years,” he says.
Photography by Jeffry Mitton (Browns Canyon); White House (Dvorak and President Obama)