Scott Streater, E&E reporter

Greenwire: Monday, June 10, 2013

Two of Colorado’s top elected leaders have renewed their efforts to redesignate the Colorado National Monument as a national park, a move that proponents of the change say will increase visitation to the monument and boost the surrounding area’s economy.

Sen. Mark Udall (D) and Rep. Scott Tipton (R), whose district includes the monument in western Colorado, announced Saturday that they have appointed a five-member executive committee composed of local community leaders to outline potential draft legislation needed to designate the monument as the 60th national park.

The executive committee will develop and submit discussion-draft legislation to Udall and Tipton, at which point the two elected leaders would hold public meetings and, if the public approves, file bipartisan legislation to designate the monument as a national park.

“The Colorado National Monument is an integral part of the lives of Mesa County residents,” Tipton said during a Saturday afternoon press conference at the monument’s Saddlehorn Campground site. “With respect for the role the monument plays in the community, Sen. Udall and I are pleased to announce the formation of a committee, and with it, the next step towards achieving the best possible outcome for the monument and people of Mesa County.”

While changing the status of Colorado National Monument to a national park would require the approval of Congress, it would not affect the management of the site, which has been under the control of the National Park Service since the 20,500-acre site was designated as a monument in 1911 by President Taft.

Nevertheless, some nearby residents have expressed concerns that the change could result in more heavy-handed federal management of the park unit, with more restrictions on park uses and the enforcement of stronger air-quality standards that could hurt the local economy.

The Park Service has repeatedly said such concerns are not valid. And both Udall and Tipton insisted several times during Saturday’s press conference that they will not move forward with any redesignation proposal until they have a recommendation from the executive committee and the full support of the local community.

“I want to be very clear, we are not rushing this process,” Udall said. “We have no dates circled. We are going to move slowly, we are going to move methodically. We are going to move with the great input and leadership of the five-member committee.”

Although Tipton said the Colorado National Monument “is worthy, certainly, of national acclaim, and national park status,” he said Saturday that he, too, wants to make sure the surrounding community fully supports the change.

“This is not going to be a time-driven approach,” he said. “We are not going to set a deadline.”

Support for a change

Saturday’s announcement follows more than a year of public hearings and discussions by Udall and Tipton with stakeholders in nearby Grand Junction and Fruita about redesignating the monument as a national park. These discussions also explored keeping it a national monument but changing the name to better represent the canyons, red rock formations and other natural treasures at the site.

Udall and Tipton had appointed an earlier working group to study the issue. But after more than a year of meetings and discussions, the group, Tipton said Saturday, “wasn’t able to come to a conclusion.”

But there is documented evidence that changing the status of a monument or other park unit to a national park increases the profile of the site and draws in more international and domestic tourists.

Congress has endorsed redesignation proposals in the past. For example, Pinnacles National Monument in central California — designated as a monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt — became Pinnacles National Park in January. Officials there say the new designation has already sparked greater public interest and more traffic at the 26,600-acre park.

A February report conducted by the Congressional Research Service examined the significance of park titles and concluded that changing the designation of park units to national parks generally has an economic benefit to the surrounding region.

“Many of the country’s best-known natural attractions are contained in national parks, and visitors planning travel itineraries often target the national parks over other units of the park system. For this reason, units that have been redesignated as national parks have, in some cases, seen an upsurge in tourism, to the benefit of the local economy,” the report said.

The CRS report specifically addressed the Colorado National Monument and noted that proponents of changing the designation to a national park have argued that doing so would establish the country’s largest concentration of national parks in western Colorado and eastern Utah, “creating a marketing advantage that could increase visitation, resulting in economic benefit to the region.”

Joan Anzelmo, former superintendent of the Colorado National Monument, said redesignating the monument as a national park “will more appropriately recognize the superlative landscape, the extraordinary geology and paleontology, the history of indigenous peoples, the diversity of wildlife,” and the site’s civil works projects, such as the 23-mile-long Rim Rock Drive, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Anzelmo, now a spokeswoman for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, also said the move would finalize the vision set forth more than a century ago by John Otto, a conservationist who spearheaded fundraising campaigns, petitions and newspaper editorials supporting the establishment of the area as a national park after visiting the site in 1906.

“Colorado National Monument was always intended to be protected as a national park. But in 1910 the various bills to establish the national park languished in Congress and the initiative was never completed,” Anzelmo said. “Today, the coalition joins many others who would like to see John Otto’s vision brought to reality by the establishment of a national park in Colorado’s iconic canyon country.”

Ongoing debate

The management of Colorado National Monument, and its relationship to the Grand Junction and Fruita communities, has been an issue of growing tension for several years.

That tension has focused lately on efforts by Grand Junction community leaders to hold a stage of a professional bicycle race through the Colorado National Monument.

The Grand Junction USA Pro Challenge Local Organizing Committee has applied three times for permission to hold a stage of the 500-mile USA Pro Cycling Challenge bike race through a portion of the western Colorado monument, and each time NPS has denied the request, arguing it would compromise the Park Service’s core mission to preserve resources.

But the Park Service and the superintendent of the national monument last year announced the agency will conduct what it calls an in-depth review of its policies for allowing special events at the Colorado National Monument, a move some have interpreted as a signal NPS could be willing to soften its stance on the pro bike race (Greenwire, Nov. 12, 2012).

Colorado National Monument Superintendent Lisa Eckert has said that although almost everything will be on the table, the review does not signal that the Park Service has had a change of heart on the issue.

As this issue continues to be a source of debate, so do local concerns about elevating the monument to a national park and what that means for the nearby communities.

The Congressional Research Service report notes, “In the case of Colorado National Monument, concerns have been expressed about whether a redesignation would bring new limits on road access for local residents and whether stricter air quality standards would be applied.”

Along those lines, some residents are concerned that Rim Rock Drive in the national monument would no longer be accessible to the residents of nearby Glade Park, who use a section of the road on the east end of the monument to access the town. The Park Service has said access to the road would not change as a result of the redesignation.

Still, Tipton said some in the community see the potential changes as the “unintended consequences” of redesignating the monument as a national park.

And Udall said he is confident the issues will not undermine efforts to elevate the site’s status.

“In all of those cases, we believe we can maintain existing access … existing air quality [standards],” he said. “The language of the bill needs to demonstrate that that’s the case.

“It takes time to designate lands as national parks,” he added. “If you do it right, you get the community to buy in, you get the business community behind you, and take into account all of those concerns, it can be a win across the board: economically, in protecting your way of life and in making sure that our kids have access to these veritable landscapes. These are iconic landscapes.”

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