A lizard weighs in on the park debate

By Eric Sandstrom

If I were a yellow-headed collared lizard watching human beings argue over the status of Colorado National Monument, one word would immediately come to mind: vanity. I’d have other thoughts, too:

You folks don’t even live in these extraordinary canyons — which happen to be [ITAL] my [ITAL] habitat — yet you have the gall to fight over them as if you owned them. You ought to be ashamed.

Keep in mind that I’m not just any old run-of-the-mill beast who’s calling out all of you big mouths. It is my awesome image, which happens to be emblazoned on every one of those pricey monument T-shirts and ball caps that humans take back home to proudly wear in Cleveland and Boise and Altoona. I’m the rock star of the monument.

Unlike most of your lizards that eat insects, I prefer meat to bugs. So, here’s my beef with you people …

It makes no difference to the Wingate sandstone walls, which have been standing for hundreds of millions of years, what you call this place. It makes no difference to the junipers or the bighorn sheep that call this place home whether Colorado National Monument becomes a national park.

There is a ton of historical evidence that Mother Nature was here long before Homo sapiens discovered this magical place. And she will be here long after the human race takes the same exit ramp as the dinosaurs that once lived here.

The essence of this hallowed ground won’t change. National park or national monument? Mother Nature doesn’t give a hoot what you call her. If this ecosystem becomes a national park, don’t expect cutthroat trout to take notice and start spawning in the pools of No Thoroughfare Canyon. Grizzly bears are highly unlikely to migrate south from Yellowstone just to hang out in Devils Kitchen. And if the mighty Independence Monument suddenly topples to the canyon floor, I’ll eat my tail.

But the debate goes on. Ever since this most recent push to “parkify” the monument began, Grand Valley has been divided by this question of status.

John Otto proposed the park idea more than a century ago. But it wasn’t to be. President William Howard Taft signed a proclamation that made our habitat a national monument instead. This did not change the geology of the place, but it certainly helped to protect it and its plants and animals from selfish people who would have exploited it for their own purposes.

That was way back in 1911. Several attempts to parkify the monument since then have failed. Today, it looks like a national park is again a possibility despite the bickering of locals who seem to forget that Grand Junction and Fruita don’t own the monument. You might say the monument is on loan to all Americans, but ultimately, the true landowners out here are the bighorn sheep and the prickly pear cactus, the jackrabbits and butterflies, the red-spotted toads and lizards like me.

The local battle pits neighbor against neighbor, business against business, and even park ranger against park ranger. Homeowners who live near the monument and energy industry workers claim that turning the monument into a national park will give Uncle Sam the chance to infringe on their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Hogwash.

Meanwhile, proponents of park status — largely folks eager to attract tourism dollars to Grand Valley — dismiss the naysayers’ worries as symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. They claim park status would bring prestige to the place and boost an economy still hurting from the recession. This feud could not seem more absurd than if the John Boehner-and-Nancy Pelosi Road Show pitched its tent out here on the Western Slope.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), I’m really not a yellow-headed collared lizard. I am a former seasonal park ranger who spent many summers talking to visitors about lizards and other wildlife, taking kids and their parents out on the trails for desert hikes, and often explaining the difference between a national monument and a national park. (Parks are created by an act of Congress and monuments by presidential proclamation.)

Many folks from as far as Germany and as close as Fruita are clueless when it comes to the meaning of a national monument. They come here searching for a plaque on a wall. Their eyes open wider when they learn they are inside the monument. Instead of a plaque, it’s 20,000 acres of protected wildlife, vegetation and canyons.

But there is a noteworthy precedent for the kind of vanity that is playing out today in our community. One of my favorite passages in the Old Testament comes from Ecclesiastes:

“A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.”

What I observe in this debate over park status is nothing more than the vanity of people arguing just to argue. There is an absence of humility on both sides.

To be honest, it makes little difference to me whether the monument becomes a national park. A status change will not change my life. I will continue to run the trails almost every day of every year for as long as I’m able to — just like the coyotes and rabbits, the lions and bighorn sheep — and the lizards, of course.

The author is a journalism professor at Colorado Mesa University.


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Hey little collard lizard fellow, you are a wise reptile indeed. Proponents of a national park base their position on “prestige” and “exponential” growth in tourism. I’m sure the last things you and your wild neighbors on the Colorado National Monument need are a false sense of “importance” and burgeoning numbers of feet trampling your habitat. You’re neutral on the topic of redesignation, which in the long-term vision of geological time is but the blink of an eye. But in the short-term, which could be 50, 100, 200 years into the future, national park status, and the “exponential” growth proponents claim will come with it, your little world, your habitat, your diet of insects and the occasional prickly pear fruit, could be trampled and destroyed; gone for generations. After your morning sunning on that outcrop of Wingate sanstone, take a minute and read what happens in heavily traveled national parks. http://rewilding.org/rewildit/images/NPS-Road-Fatalities-Survey.pdf

Great article!  Refreshing perspective of a complicated issue…thanks!

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