Talk of monument getting park designation

A hiker makes her way to Devils Kitchen on Colorado National Monument. There is talk that the area could be redesignated as a park.

What’s in one little word? Well, if it means changing the name of Colorado National Monument to Colorado National Park, the effect of those four letters could be vast.

Talk has been circulating recently about a possible name change for the scenic area of sweeping canyons and redrock vistas that hem in the Grand Valley’s west end.

A designation change must be approved by Congress, and such an effort often first is propelled by a groundswell movement from a monument’s neighboring communities.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall acknowledged during a recent visit to the monument that such an idea is percolating. Udall is the chairman of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s National Parks Subcommittee, which may place him in an ideal situation to sponsor such a bill.

From a tourism perspective, a designation change may create a bigger draw for visitors. Colorado National Monument already is receiving a growing numbers of visitors each year.

“It would make a huge difference,” said Debbie Kovalik, the executive director of the Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau. “Any community that has a national park in it will result in higher visitation numbers. That designation is so well understood.”

Where’s the statue?

A designation change for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison near Montrose from a national monument to a national park played out into a nearly two-decade project. One of the first studies was completed in the 1980s, but the designation change didn’t occur until 1999.

Much of the stalling came from early legislation that initially included adding additional land and limiting some of the area’s existing uses.

But Montrose locals first became interested in changing the monument’s status after an oil shale bust in the mid-1980s. The area exploded with workers, housing and construction but as that came crashing down, economic leaders sought a more long-term financial draw.

Under the label of a national monument, visitors would often show up expecting to find a cement plaque or statue — something more in-line with their definition of a “monument,” said Dave Roberts, management assistant at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

“Some people weren’t sure what a monument was,” he said. “I think for some of the newer, younger crowd they were sometimes surprised.”

Superintendent Joan Anzelmo of Colorado National Monument said she and her staff hear much of the same confusion. Visitors who do their research and may be incorporating a tour of national parks such as the Black Canyon and Utah’s parks in their journey may know to stop at Colorado National Monument. Others may not know whether it’s worth the journey from nearby towns or Interstate 70.

“Every single day we hear from people who are confused about our name,” Anzelmo said. “The universal reaction we get is, ‘Wow this is like a mini Grand Canyon.’ “

Location, location ...

Changing the status from a national monument to a national park for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison did not result in the spike of visitors local officials had hoped for. However a nearby Curecanti National Recreation Area attracted nearly a million users last year for water-related activities.

Some believe that Colorado National Monument’s access from Interstate 70 and its closer proximity to Utah’s chain of beloved national parks is makes it more likely to be a natural draw.

Colorado National Monument’s east end is an entry point for travelers to Glade Park. Between 2005 and 2006, the numbers of recreational users to the monument eclipsed that of Glade Park commuters. In 2009, the monument saw 316,852 non-recreational visitors and 400,266 recreational visitors.

As recreational use increases, some of those visitors undoubtedly are foreign travelers “doing the national park circuit,” Kovalik said.

The name recognition equated with national parks is huge as travelers from other countries may not have similar swaths of open space to enjoy.

“We still now benefit from the Colorado National Monument being in the national park system but a lot of foreigners only get there because they do their research,” she said. “Even the Black Canyon of the Gunnison being a national park helps us.”

That was then

In the 1990s, a movement to change the monument to a park fell flat for several reasons. Proposals then called for incorporating more land into the monument’s boundaries, which irked opponents.

Some of the area then proposed as new boundaries for a national park are now included in the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, in scenic areas to the west.

At that time, Kovalik said, the area was booming with an influx of workers and construction responding to a natural-gas drilling boom. Locals were too overwhelmed with local changes to back a designation change, and the effort was adamantly rebuffed, she said.

If the monument were to be redesignated, all current uses would be still be allowed. The monument’s 20,534 acres contain 13,842 acres of proposed wilderness and are managed as such. Though the monument’s acreage is relatively small, if redesignated it wouldn’t be the tiniest national park. Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio is 18,440 acres, and Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas is only 5,549 acres. Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park is 35,835 acres, and Arches National Park is 76,679 acres, by comparison. Black Canyon of the Gunnison is 30,750 acres after additional land was included in 2006.

An area also must possess unique characteristics in order to earn the designation of a national park. It must possess significant cultural history, offer breathtaking recreational opportunities, be a relatively unspoiled resource and be a particularly fitting example of one type of natural resource.

Colorado National Monument boasts a rich history of John Otto’s attempts to gain recognition and access to the area. The completion of the winding 23-mile Rim Rock Drive by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Project Administration remains an admirable feat. A rare butterfly, Lithariapteryx abroniacella, was collected near the visitor center, the first Colorado record of the species in more than a century, according to monument staff.

“I think there would be more support now than 10 years ago,” Kovalik said. “If somebody that’s running (for office) or Udall carries the torch it might work. It’s going to take city council and Rotary and economic groups to back it. From the economy standpoint it might make sense to improve our flow of outside dollars.”


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