Designation as a park no guarantee of increase in visitors to Colorado National Monument
As locals debate the merits of redesignating Colorado National Monument a national park, the experiences of other monuments-turned-parks suggest the anticipated impacts on both tourism and the natural landscape might be overblown.
While most of the debate has focused on potential economic benefits and a vague fear of the federal government, many residents have also expressed the desire to simply keep the place unknown, giving up predicted additional tourism dollars in favor of preserving the full natural beauty and solitude of the monument.
It seems like a plausible scenario: Being known as a national park rather than the less-recognizable national monument would bring more visitors and thus, perhaps, more impacts on the resources and experience that make the place unique and worth protecting in the first place.
But the numbers do not seem to bear that out.
In the 10 years before making the monument-to-park shift in 1999, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park averaged 257,552 visitors a year, according to a Daily Sentinel analysis of National Park Service data. In the years since, it has averaged only 178,949.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve graduated from monument status in 2004. In the 10 years before that switch, it averaged 284,600 visitors annually. In the eight years since, it has averaged 277,221.
“Everybody keeps wanting to look for that spike, but it just wasn’t there,” said Sandy Snell-Dobert, chief of interpretation at Black Canyon.
She said it does appear there may be greater numbers of international visitors since the name change, though that observation is based merely on entries in the visitor center’s guest register.
Since there have not been more people visiting the park, there has not been any significant impacts on the resources or visitor experience since the name change, Snell-Dobert said.
Asked whether there is any chance those international guests are somehow more destructive, she laughed. “We certainly haven’t noticed anything.”
A committee of local stakeholders studying whether to ask that the monument be redesignated a national park expects the name change would lead to increased international tourism here as well.
“International tour operators routinely omit Colorado National Monument from their tours because their patrons do not equate National Monuments with National Parks. There is a confusion about National Monuments that does not occur with National Parks,” they said in a report of their preliminary findings this spring.
But regardless of whether the name changes, it appears that larger numbers of tourists are already flocking to the monument, no matter where they are from.
The annual total of recreational visitors, or those who are not simply driving through to get to Glade Park, has steadily risen over the past decade and has gone up each year since 2008, echoing population growth in the surrounding areas.
It is worth noting, however, that the average number of recreational visitors has not gone up significantly recently when compared with past decades. The 1970s saw an average of 460,701 annual tourists, while the 1980s and 1990s were both in the low 330,000s. Since 2000, the monument has seen 352,122 each year on average, with 435,460 stopping through last year.
Still, if those numbers continue the upward trend begun in 2008, the monument hopes to be ready.
Chief of interpretation Michelle Wheatley said they are currently planning for projected increases in visitors, due more to local population growth and growth in tourism at National Park Service sites nationwide than a potential name change.
Already, she said, there might be congestion at any given time on Rim Rock Drive, particularly on the eastern section during rush hours.
“Our staff and other resource specialists keep a general eye on trends while focusing more specific monitoring and management on areas of concern,” Wheatley said. “Impacts result from many factors including numbers of people, use patterns, activities and resource type.”
In order to limit any impacts from more visitors, she said they are taking proactive measures, including maintaining signage and trails and educating visitors about staying on those trails and minding the biological crust and wildlife. The monument also can temporarily close sensitive areas during nesting or lambing seasons.
Balancing preservation and tourism, Wheatley said, “is a challenge at any park unit, but we’re really confident we can accommodate more visitors.”