There’s been a lot of hoopla and public meetings here in Grand Junction, Colo., about turning the nearby Colorado National Monument into a national park. My opinion is simply: Why not?
I know this is not a passionate position, but this isn’t a passionate subject. As a former national park ranger, I know that the public is confused about the difference between a monument and a park, while the truth is that there is little difference between them.
A monument is designated as such by the sole authority of the president of the United States, using powers conveyed by the Antiquities Act of 1906. A national park is designated by an act of Congress. That’s it. I have often heard of monuments being “upgraded” to park status, and though technically a park can be considered a more permanent designation, I am unaware of any monument designated by a president getting undesignated by an act of Congress.
In addition, a change in designation confers not one iota of additional protection, funding or restrictions. The only visible change is the name on the entrance signs. Some people I know say they’re concerned about the “new” restrictions that would be put into place. I tell them there would be no change, though I can tell they don’t believe it. My favorite response is from folks who say they’re afraid because they sure don’t want the federal government to become involved. Um … go back to sleep!
I have heard it said that by designating such a small – and I’ll say it – a less than spectacular park that boasts views similar to the ones you can marvel at in Utah’s Canyonlands and Arches national parks, the park designation itself will lost its luster. I don’t see how one affects the other any more than I can see how same-sex marriage somehow magically affects the “sanctity” of opposite-sex marriage. Park status also would not change the number of employees. The rangers, staff and superintendent would probably stay the same, and the change in designation would not change the mission of their jobs one bit. Those onerous little rules that are in place now – like no dogs on trails – would stay onerous and in place, and rules that don’t exist now would continue to not exist. If visitors close their eyes as they drive by the entrance sign, they will never know the difference. So why bother turning a monument into a park?
The answer lies in perception. Monuments ... blah! Why bother to even slow down? Parks ... oooooh! Ahhhh! The West’s great natural splendor at its best! And with that change in public perception comes likely increase in visitation. And with an increase in visitation comes an increase in the amount of money spent in the area. I am no fan of the “industrial tourism” that fellow-curmudgeon Ed Abbey so accurately predicted, but all towns strive for a healthy economy.
A huge part of the Grand Valley’s economy is now derived from oil and gas extraction. It’s a moneymaker when it’s boom and not bust, and yet it’s hard to live with: Heavy traffic on the section of the interstate that runs through town, water and air degradation, well pads in unlikely and often inappropriate places.
Tourism can be added to a cleaner, less disruptive and more sustainable economy. Do I want heavier traffic? Of course not. But will there be noticeably heavier traffic in town? It’s hard to imagine there would be much difference.
The one argument I hear with any credibility is that park status would increase traffic through the current monument and thereby threaten the safety of bicyclists. The road through the monument was mostly carved out of sandstone by the Civilian Conservation Corps decades ago, and is so windy and twisty that if you drive over the edge, you die. I’m a bicyclist, and the ride through the monument is accurately described as one of the premier rides in the area. I have certainly heard true stories about near misses and vehicle-versus-biker collisions. My experience riding the monument is that drivers have their eyes firmly on the road because the cost of a mistake is deadly. In any case, I’m no fan of folks who have selfish reasons for doing or not doing something.
My input to Congress? Just do it. Hell, at least they’d be doing something!
Wayne Hare is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a retired, former grumpy ranger, and now a grumpy civilian in the Grand Junction area.