Grant to help canyon group take next steps

The McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area marked its 10th anniversary this year. Reaching the decade milestone offers a sign of stability and of an effort that’s healthy and moving forward.

Such is apparently the case for the 123,000 acres designated for public use west of the Colorado National Monument and east of the Utah border. In fact, Friends of McInnis Canyons has been awarded a $300,000 grant to help manage and maintain the area that runs alongside the Colorado River and features breathtaking canyons, red rock walls and arches, desert bighorn sheep and desert plants and flowers.

The conservation area offers something for nearly every outdoor enthusiast, with areas designated specifically for wilderness, such nonmotorized transport as bicycles and horses, all-terrain motor vehicles and hunting. Feedback from various interested parties produced an area that permits multiple uses.

“It was a bottom-up management plan and everybody had to give a little,” said Owen O’Fallon, chairman of Friends of McInnis Canyons.

O’Fallon recently attended a conference in Las Vegas, where the organization received the $300,000 grant from the Conservation Lands Foundation, a private organization. Half the grant will be in the form of cash, while the other half will come in the form of such in-kind donations as administrative and public relations consulting help, O’Fallon said. The grant will be dispersed over three years beginning in 2011. “This is to help us build our capacity as an organization,” he added.

The grant also helps the organization take the next step in developing and promoting the area.

“Now it’s protected. Now what?” asked O’Fallon. “I think the friends group concept is one answer to that.”

The organization consists of 80 members, with 11 serving on a board of directors. The group’s long-term mission could be to educate the public, particularly children growing up in an age of video games and other indoor attractions.

“There will come a time when most of the trails will be built … and then our mission will be education,” O’Fallon said.

The group has already conducted guided programs for children, organizing a scavenger hunt that enticed school students to run the trails and examine the flora, fauna and geological formations. The organization also planted cottonwoods along the river to replace tamarisk removed from riverbanks.

O’Fallon said it’s been a pleasure to work with such local Bureau of Land Management staffers as Catherine Robertson, field manager of the Grand Junction BLM office, and Katie Stevens, outdoor recreation planner. “The people we have to deal with here get it,” he said.

Said Stevens: “I think the friends have been well-positioned to help us reach out more effectively to the public.”

McInnis Canyons can be a boost to the local economy, O’Fallon said. Mesa County is often touted as an outdoor paradise when companies or business people consider moving to Western Colorado.

According to literature from Friends of McInnis Canyons, 58 percent of NCA users come from outside the area of the conservation area they visit. Those visitors spend an estimated $8.2 million at the 16 NCAs in the country. More than 200 jobs are directly or indirectly created by the visits.

According to a report from the Sonoran Institute, which works to help communities preserve land, tourism contributes more than $10.9 billion annually to the Colorado economy and supports than 140,000 jobs. Outdoor recreation generates nearly $500 million in annual state tax revenues.

Mountain biking alone brings $24 million annually to the Grand Valley, said Chris Muhr, president of the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association (COPMOBA). Muhr cited a study conducted by Mesa State College in conjunction with the BLM.

“Our involvement is in building trails for a nonmotorized trail system,” Muhr said.

McInnis Canyons joins Dominguez-Escalante and Gunnison Gorge as three NCAs that are part of the National Landscape Conservation System. O’Fallon envisions an organization that will encompass all three “jewels.”

“There’s a value in wild land, even if all you ever do is go to the edge and look in,” O’Fallon said in paraphrasing a famous quote by Wallace Stegner from more than 50 years ago: “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”