Hikers and joggers aren’t the only ones rattling around the monument

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This is the seventh in a series of weekly columns about Colorado National Monument in honor of the park’s centennial anniversary on May 24.

Last July while jogging the Monument Canyon Trail, I came to a sudden halt at what sounded like dry leaves crackling. There wasn’t a dry leaf around, however.

The scratching must be coming from something alive, I thought, something alive and maybe packing two venom-loaded fangs.

Sure enough. No more than half a step from my right New Balance was a midget faded rattlesnake. He couldn’t have been more than two feet long, and no thicker than my thumb.

I’d seen rattlers before, but this was my first midget faded (aka Crotalus concolor). I identified him from having studied photos of these cream-colored specimens in reptile books. This is the only species of rattler native to Colorado National Monument.

We were wary of each other. Having to share a steep, narrow trail like this, you know, anything could happen right now …

But the snake was good enough (and loud enough) to let me know he would not appreciate being trampled upon by my waffle-soled clodhoppers. If such an accident occurred, I would pay dearly for veering out of my traffic lane and into his.

He would be long gone, safe beneath a rock before I could dial 911 on my cell phone.

You bet I gave him a wide berth. He deserved to slither along in the hot sand without having to worry about big old me. I just stared at him, a creature surviving on good genes and good luck.

There was just the two of us: one midget faded rattler being admired by one faded giant human. This was his habitat, not mine. Yet less than half a mile away, motorists zipped along Rim Rock Drive as if there was no tomorrow but plenty of air conditioning.

The snake was a beaut. I felt downright fortunate to witness his ornery presence. For those who never laid eyes on a midget faded, your imagination cannot do it justice. You think “midget” plus “faded” equals shrimpy snake of beige. But hold on to your calculator!

Let’s consider a Western diamondback. The mother of all rattlers (aka Crotalus atrox) sports a rhinestone-studded pattern along a positively ripped physique at least twice the length of our midget faded.

If we were to delicately shove a diamondback rattler up against our own midget faded, it would be sort of like parking a Mercedes-Benz next to a Toyota Corolla. Laughable. But remember: There are no Benzes (I mean diamondbacks) holed up at the monument.

So we must give our midget faded all the respect — and distance — he deserves. He’s as wild as any creature out here, dangerous to be sure, and cooler than most.

Which brings me, at long last, to the point of this essay.

Were it not for a 105-year-old law, magical experiences like the one I had last July would likely be impossible because there wouldn’t be a monument in the first place. Instead, there would be ranches or housing developments overlooking Monument Canyon.

When the monument was born on May 24, 1911, it was the bureaucratic offspring of a federal law designed to protect public lands from the threat of human destruction.

The law, called the Antiquities Act of 1906, empowered the president of the United States to create national monuments, an offshoot of the conservation movement establishing national parks.

It takes an act of Congress to establish a national park. But a national monument requires a presidential proclamation, which streamlines the political process to set aside “objects of historic or scientific interest” on public lands.

Prior to the Antiquities Act, there were no national monuments, only national parks whose creation depends on the more lengthy process of Congressional approval.

A scientist for the U.S. Biological Survey named T.S. “Tombstone” Palmer was an early advocate of national monuments. In 1917, Tombstone Palmer identified Colorado National Monument as one of eight national monuments that were valuable habitats for wild animals.

Palmer recognized potential threats to public lands and wildlife ranging from logging and hunting to mining and artifact-collecting. He wanted such activities prohibited on national monuments as well as national parks.

Even with the Antiquities Act, the monument’s creation did not come easy. It took a relentless campaign by the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce and others, including conservationist John Otto, to persuade then-President William H. Taft that these canyons deserved protection.

More than half a million Americans and foreigners take advantage of the Antiquities Act every year by visiting the monument. They shoot photos, scale monoliths and stretch their legs on the hiking trails. Some actually get married here.

Whether you walk on two legs, four legs, ride the thermals on feathered wings or slither across the desert on your belly, you soon find out what a special place this is.

# # #

Eric Sandstrom teaches at Mesa State College and is a seasonal park ranger at Colorado National Monument.


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