Wide divide presents obstacle to national park proposal

Scott Tipton, US Congressman
Scott Tipton, US Congressman
Mark Udall, US Senator
Mark Udall, US Senator

Kelly Sloan, The Business Times

Sharp differences of opinion over a proposal to change Colorado National Monument into a national park surfaced again during a public hearing in Grand Junction.

U.S. Rep Scott Tipton — who, along with U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, is considering federal legislature to create Red Rocks National Park — said comments at the hearing both in favor and against the plan align with what he’s heard elsewhere.

“The comments I’ve been receiving have been nearly evenly split among those in support, those opposed and those who have no opinion. That doesn’t speak to the community harmony that is needed to go ahead,” said Tipton, a Republican whose 3rd Congressional District includes the monument.

Those sentiments were echoed by Mesa County Commissioner Steve Aquafresca, who served on a committee formed several years ago to gauge community support for the change. “The committee found that the community is very split,” Aquafresca said. “Forty percent were in favor, 40 percent opposed and 20 perceent didn’t really care. That was about a year ago. And the now the split remains, but the gap has probably gotten wider.”

Tipton and Udall said they both require a clear community consensus before introducing legislation turning the monument into a national park.

“I want to make clear that I have not drafted any legislation” Tipton said. “Without broad–based support from all sectors, I will not support legislation to change the status of the monument. When it comes to our public lands, any change must be made through a bottom-up process.”

A community working group was formed last year to draft a working proposal that addressed concerns and that might be acceptable to all sides. The group released its a draft earlier this year that include provisions to permanently maintain existing park boundaries, to mainain the air quality designation of the proposed park and surrounding areas and prohibit a buffer zone.

Still, opponents of the park plan raised concerns at the hearing a designation could invite stricter air quality rules that could impede industrial and economic development and energy production in the Gramd Valley and region.

Others voiced concerns potential increases in tourism and visitation to the new park would strain roads, increase safety hazards and damage the landscape. 

Karen Madsen, a local business owner and bicyclist, said she no longer rides her bike up the east side of the monument because of increased traffic. “There is one, 3 1/2-mile skinny road. There is no room for more cars, bikes, buses and hikers,” she said. She also said parking is already limited both at the base and visitor’s center.

Marjorie Haun called for Tipton and Utah to maintain the monument status, but change policies she said keep tourism out. She referred to a decision to disallow a prominent bicycle race on the monument.

Proponents of national park status countered that many of those concerns either had been addressed by the working group or were illusory. 

Greg Mikolai, a supporter of the park initiative who served on the same committee as Aquafresca, called opponents’ concerns “phantasms of bureaucracy and regulation increasing once the status changes.” 

“The national monument is administered and operated the same as a national park,” Mikolai said. “There is no difference, and anyone who tries to say otherwise is trying to spread fear.”

Michael Driver, director of international marketing and public relations with the Colorado Tourism Office, said it’s difficult to put the Western Slope “on the map” because there’s no national park in the area. Meanwhile, tourists drive past the Colorado National Monument on Interstate Highway 70 en route to national parks in Utah.

Udall, a Democrat from Colorado,  acknowledged the split in opinion over the park plan, but said he still believes the idea is a good one. “I thought there were a lot of important comments both for and against the concept of a national park. I continue to believe that as the community sees its way forward to supporting the idea, that there are more upsides than there are downsides. We’re not going to rush anybody.” 

Udall said the change would bring economic benefits to the area. “As I look at the ebb and flow of economic activity over here, it just strikes me that having a national park as part of the portfolio of economic activity here would be helpful.”

Tipton was more circumspect. “We had a large committee that came together several years ago. It came out that we did not have community consensus.”

While he acknowledged, “this is not the whole universe at this meeting” there were some important takeaways. “There are legitimate concerns that even with the best of intentions, draft legislation can be amended.” He reiterated concerns that recommendations of the working group could be stripped or watered down during the legislative process.