By BRUCE NOBLE
I would certainly add my words of support in wishing a happy 20th birthday to McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area (NCA). Creating any new public lands unit requires such an alignment of politics, federal agency initiative and public support that it’s almost amazing that it ever happens. But as a career employee of the National Park Service (NPS) who arrived as superintendent of Colorado National Monument not long after the establishment of McInnis Canyons NCA, I suppose my happy birthday wishes are a little more nuanced.
No federal agency is perfect, but I am a partisan supporter of the mission of the National Park Service. The NPS invested years in the effort to expand the boundaries of Colorado National Monument. In 1990, the NPS produced a study titled “Resource/Boundary Evaluation for Lands Adjacent to Colorado National Monument.” Countless public meetings were held advocating for NPS management of the area that became McInnis Canyons NCA. I understand that Mesa County has typically had more affinity for the multiple use management philosophy of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) than for the conservation mission of the NPS, but I would have loved to have seen the monument’s mission expanded to include the management of what became McInnis Canyons.
But that was then and this is now. Where do we go from here? I find myself returning to the monument’s March 2005 General Management Plan. Looking at it today, I am struck by how much of the plan focuses on joint management efforts between the BLM and the NPS in the area adjoining the monument. I don’t fully know to what extent those joint management recommendations have been acted upon, but I would guess that funding and staffing limitations have meant that not a whole lot has happened.
Just to single out one joint management concept in the General Management Plan that has unfulfilled potential, I am still drawn to the concept of an interagency visitor center in the Fruita area or some other suitable location. One of the ironies of the NCA is that most people accessing the Mee Canyon/Rattlesnake Arches area do so by passing through the monument. Consequently, the monument visitor center becomes the de facto stopping point for visitors seeking information about an area that the monument does not manage. And people wanting to recreate in Devil’s Canyon, Pollock Bench, Rabbit Valley, on the Colorado River, and in other “front country” areas of the NCA are even more hard pressed to get information to help them plan their visit.
At one time, there were regular meetings between the BLM, NPS, and other partners working to plan the Fruita interagency visitor center. I would like to see a resumption of those efforts. If constructed, such a visitor center would be a welcome addition for both local residents and out-of-town visitors alike. It would also be a fitting complement to Fruita’s growing reputation as a jumping off point for public land experiences here in the Grand Valley.
Looking further into the future, perhaps beyond my own lifespan, I imagine a different future for McInnis Canyons. Visit the Colorado State Demography Office website and it’s easy to see that Colorado’s population is growing exponentially and that growth is expected to continue. Many of those people coming here are doing so specifically because of their love for public lands. And many of these new arrivals embrace the conservation mission of the NPS.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see Mesa County’s preference for the multiple use mission of the BLM ending anytime soon. But I do see that preference diminishing. Grand Junction is growing and changing just as the state of Colorado is. And many of those people coming to this valley are doing so because of their love of the outdoors, public lands and conservation. The predominance of extractive industries in the Grand Valley is not going away, but I would predict that its role in our overall economy will continue to give way to an increasing desire to protect our scenic outdoor wonders.
Will the NPS ever manage some or part of McInnis Canyons NCA? That’s tough to say. In the meantime, looking at more joint management of the monument and the NCA just seems to make good sense. In addition, we can hope that the incoming Biden administration will ramp up the funding for the BLM’s NCA program so that more can be done to protect these spectacular areas. Whatever package it may come in, I am grateful to have McInnis Canyons in our valley and pleased to see the area achieve its 20th birthday.
Bruce Noble recently retired after a 33-year career with the National Park Service. He was most recently the superintendent for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area near Gunnison. He lives in Grand Junction.