Monumental change: Committee considering national park designation

Visitors pass through the east entrance to the Colorado National Monument. A community working group has been formed to consider if the monument should become a national park.

Joan Anzelmo hears the same story nearly every day. Travelers see the signs for the Colorado National Monument and pull off Interstate Highway 70 expecting to find a roadside marker or perhaps a statue of some sort. What they discover instead is a vast landscape of redrock canyons and towering spires.

As superintendent of the monument, Anzelmo believes the area qualifies for a different name that elicits far different expectations. “It is worthy of national park status,” she says.

In the very year marking the 100th anniversary of the 1911 proclamation of President William Howard Taft that established the Colorado National Monument, a community group has been formed to explore the possibility of changing the monument to a national park.

Several members of the group say the effects of the change on Grand Valley businesses — potentially good and bad — will be among the factors they consider.

While the monument already ranks among the top attractions in the Grand Valley, national parks usually draw visitors on a larger scale, says Barbara Bowman, director of sales and division manager of the Grand Junction Visitor & Convention Bureau as well as a member of the committee.

“It would give us a clear opportunity to attract more visitors.”

Bonnie Petersen, director of Club 20 and another member of the committee, says a number of questions about the change first must be answered.

Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce and yet another member of the committee, says its important to involve the community in the process. “I don’t think the community has really had the opportunity to have that discussion.”

U.S. Sen Mark Udall and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton announced the formation of the committee to consider the future of the Colorado National Monument.

The 16-member group includes the mayors of Fruita, Grand Junction and Palisade as well as a Mesa County commissioner and member of the Mesa County School District 51 Board. The Colorado National Monument Association and Colorado Canyons Conservation Area Association are represented on the group, as is Glade Park and the ranching community located just to the west of the monument.

Udall, D-Colo., serves as chairman of the Senate Subcomittee on National Parks. He says the Grand Valley committee will offer a venue in which people can voice their support or concerns about changing the Colorado National Monument to a national park. “Visitors to the area may think of a monument and, unfortunately, expect to see a stone marker. So a national park designation could better reflect the stunning land Coloradans cherish. But any changes to public lands need to be a locally led effort.”

The change literally would require an act of Congress. But Tipton, R-Colo., says the process should start on a local level. “This is a community driven effort to determine the best options for the future of the Colorado National Monument. This committee, assembled with the lead of Club 20 and the chamber of commerce, includes the business owners, ranchers, educators and residents who call the region home. We will look to them for guidance on what the next steps should include and for information and data on what the best outcome would be for the community.”

Anzelmo says the committee represents the latest initiative to establish a national park in the distinctive canyon country southwest of Grand Junction. John Otto, the trail builder and trail blazer who first promoted the area, advocated national park protection, she says. Such legislation languished, though, and Taft used his powers under the Antiquities Act to establish a national monument. Colorado National Monument was only the second monument in Colorado and the 25th such unit of what later was established as the National Park Service.

National monuments and parks differ in how and why they’re established, Anzelmo says. Congress sets aside national parks for the use of the people because they offer outstanding scenic features or natural phenomena. The federal government preserves areas as national monuments because they contain objects of historic, prehistoric or scientific interest.

Anzelmo says the Colorado National Monument meets the criteria to become a national park because it contains outstanding examples of geological and paleontological resources, illustrates natural and cultural themes, offers a range of recreational opportunities and retains its integrity as a relatively unspoiled landscape.

Rim Rock Drive, the 23-mile road that snakes along the canyon edges through the monument and offers scenic vistas at nearly every turn, constitutes a “national treasure” in and of itself, Anzelmo says. “To have a road like that is an absolute gift.”

Club 20 — a coalition of businesses, individuals and government entities in Western Colorado — has discussed the prospect of changing the monument to a park, but has yet to take a position on the issue one way or another.

Peterson says many questions about the change first must be answered, including the potential effects of the change on local communities and businesses. Would the change affect air quality standards imposed in the region, municipal water rights held by Fruita or access to Glade Park? Moreover, would the change also involve an expansion or boundary changes? “These are just some of the questions that have come up and there are still a lot more.”

Anzelmo says the Colorado National Monument already operates under the same laws and policies as national parks, so no changes would result from a different designation. That includes air quality standards, water rights and access to Glade Park, she says. In addition, the existing acreage of the monument already is larger than other national parks.

Schwenke says it’s important to fully investigate the ramifications of changing the monument to a park and balance the potential benefits with possible effects. If the change is made, it’s unlikely to be rescinded. “We better get it right the first time.”

It’s also important for the committee to promote public participation in the discussion, Schwenke says.

Bowman says the Colorado National Monument ranks along with wineries and downtown Grand Junction among the most-visited attractions in the Grand Valley. But there’s potential for increased tourism if the monument became a park, she says.

Grand Junction already benefits from tourism related to national parks with its central location to nearby parks in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, Bowman says. “Our location still gives us such an ability to sell the area.”

Having a national park literally on the city boundaries with its easy access from an interstate highway could create an even bigger draw, Bowman says, especially on national and international levels and from bus tour operators. It could take time, though, to build awareness. Visitation didn’t increase dramatically after the Black Canyon and Sand Dunes monuments in Western Colorado became national parks, she says.

Anzelmo says the Colorado National Monument recorded a total of 738,000 visitors in 2010. That number includes about 400,000 recreational visitors and 338,000 nonrecreational visitors, many of them local residents commuting to Glade Park. Recreational visitors have outnumbered nonrecreational visitors since 2007 and the number has been growing, she says.

Anzelmo expects visitor spending related to the monument to top $25 million in 2011. The economic effects of the monument are even greater counting purchases and the salaries of the permanent and seasonal employees who work there. “We’re churning the economy in a fairly seriously way.”

Like Anzelmo, Bowman hears the stories about visitors who expect to find a roadside marker at the monument. And she agrees a national park would constitute a far more recognizable destination. But the decision to change the monument to a park is ultimately up to the community, she says. “We want to do what is best for the community.”