Plans to convert the spectacular Colorado National Monument in western Colorado into a national park are dead, at least for the time being.
The congressional backers of the plan—GOP Congressman Scott Tipton and Democratic Senator Mark Udall—said that support and opposition for the new "Rim Rock Canyons National Park" appears to be evenly divided, and both had received a petition drafted by the conservative "Friends of Colorado National Monument" with over 2,500 signatures opposed to the change.
In a statement released on Monday, Tipton—who had been leading the previously bi-partisan effort to create the national park in the House and who is also up for reelection this year—now says that he will actively oppose any effort to change the national monument status of the roughly 20,000 acres of sandstone canyons and high desert wilderness along Interstate 70 near Grand Junction, citing apparently sudden concerns over the impact of the local economy and "Executive-branch rule making."
"In a region that has experienced firsthand the adverse impacts that federal agency decisions can have on the economy and access to public lands, the community's concerns that a national park could attract additional scrutiny from federal regulators is well-founded."
Under congressional protocol, any measure to change the status would have to be supported by Tipton, whose 3rd District includes the monument.
Udall, who had been leading the effort in the Senate and who is also up for reelection, said in a statement that he will withdraw his support in the short-term but he hopes that a deal can eventually be reached between local residents and the federal government to create a new national park.
"Although the results of the comment period show more consensus is needed before we can move forward with legislation, this is a discussion community leaders, business owners and residents should continue to have. In the meantime, I will continue to fight in Congress to ensure the National Park Service works closely with the community and local residents to keep the monument a vital part of Mesa County and the Western Slope."
Under the latest proposal—just the latest chapter in a century-old fight—changing the status of Colorado National Monument to Rim Rock Canyons National Park would have, at least in immediate practical terms, not amounted to much. But opponents feared that the change in status could have tightened environmental regulations and federal oversight in the area surrounding the park.
The petition fight against changing the status of Colorado National Monument to a national park is led by Friends of the Colorado National Monument—a group that professes to include "conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts, bikers, hikers, farmers, ranchers, professionals, teachers, business owners, and families living near the Colorado National Monument (CNM) who treasure its history and wish to preserve the wonderful lifestyle we enjoy both inside and outside of its boundaries."
History and wonderful lifestyle aside, the group's website devotes by far the greatest amount of bandwidth to complaints about federal clean air and water regulations, and the inability of the energy industry to exploit national parks and the regions around them for oil and natural gas production.
FCNM decries what they call "frackophobia," calling fracking "over-regulated" and churning up fears of endless protests and legal proceedings, among other largely anti-regulatory concerns. In fact, the group calls the state "protest central when it comes to opposition to energy development."
The group also infers that changing the status of Colorado National Monument to Rim Rock Canyons Nation Park could even get the United Nations involved through the creation of a UNESCO World Heritage Site:
Boundary Adjustments are not uncommon and the individuals who own property into which the NPS wishes to expand are certainly under a great deal of pressure. There may be efforts to reimburse individuals for the value of their private land, but the threat of eminent domain is certainly a consideration when an individual citizen has to face the power of the Department of the Interior (DOI), NPS, and the U.N. bearing down.
"We began a petition over a year ago… because it was quite clear the ramifications [weren't] good for Mesa County," FCNM spokesperson Kent Carson told KREX-TV.
However, FCNM was not the only group to oppose at least some parts of the proposed legislation. The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees—a group made up of former park rangers and other National Park Service personnel—was in favor of the status change from national monument to national park. But the group spoke out against sections of the proposed legislation that that they say would have called for a local committee to advise the U.S. Department of Interior on park management, and—perhaps most troubling from an environmentalist standpoint—a proposal to place a representative of the Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association on that committee but not representatives from other relevant stakeholders in the national park-creation process.
"(T)he composition of this advisory committee, moreover, does not pass the 'red face test.' It overwhelmingly represents local interests, some of which are not even park-related. Why should the Western Slope Oil and Gas Association have a representative on the park advisory committee? With regard to a tribal representative, why doesn't the committee include a representative from the Northern Ute Tribe, which is the most closely affiliated with the park?
"Most significantly, why would the advisory committee not include national experts on the resources, values, and management of the new national park, or representatives of any conservation organization dedicated to protecting the resources and values of the National Park System, or representatives of state or regional tourism organizations who understand that relevant part of the economy?"
Colorado National Monument was created in May of 1911 by President William Howard Taft under the Antiquities Act, but the first non-Native American to explore the area, John Otto, began lobbying efforts to turn the breathtaking semi-arid canyons and plateaus—once believed to be inaccessible—into a national park as early as 1907.
But while the mesas and canyons are almost supernaturally spectacular, the national monument also sits in a region of vast natural gas, oil, coal and other reserves. On their website, FCNM laments that fossil fuel extraction has been delayed or stopped altogether on public Bureau of Land Management lands surrounding the region's other national parks—Mesa Verde National Park in the southwest part of the state and Dinosaur National Park in the northwest.
Until very recently, it appeared that there had been a consensus to turn the national monument into a national park. The summary proposal to create the Rim Rock Canyons National Park—which was presented earlier in 2014 after a nearly three-year process that included input from an 18-member fact-finding committee made up of local residents, and which was actually written by a five-member committee of local residents—was put up for a 90-day public comment period which ended in June.
Among the featured items in the summary proposal: no changes in current right-of-ways, no changes to current water rights, no change to the area's current federal air quality classification, no buffer zones around the proposed park, no changes to the current monument's boundaries and no changes to the current public access to the unincorporated town of Glade Park—which is currently only accessible via the road through Colorado National Monument.
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns also spoke out in favor of the designation change, noting the similarity of the opposition to the new national park in Colorado to that of Seward, Alaska near Kenai Fjords National Park, where local residents who were vehemently opposed to the park's creation are now among the park's biggest boosters.
"It was a town that depended on oil booms and busts and they suddenly found history, heritage and travel," Burns told the Grand Junction Sentinel in June. "A permanent pipeline — that's what they called it — that was not subject to the vagaries of what was going on in the oil market, and more importantly, didn't degrade, in any way, the environment."
According to the Sentinel, the manager of the region's tourism board called the proposed national park a good, fast cure-all for the local economy.
"We in the tourism constituency truly believe that a national park would not only protect this fabulous resource, but would also move the needle economically and in a very quick fashion," said Barbara Bowman, manager of the Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau.
The Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, which had at least initially supported the plan, reports that its membership is evenly split over the issue. President and CEO Diane Schwenke says that according to a 2010 survey, the membership is divided into thirds—one-third supports the plan, one-third is opposed and one-third doesn't really care one way or another.
"All through this process, I don't think I've seen the needle move," Schwenke told the Sentinel, "except that it's become more divisive."
Image via Glenn Merritt/Flickr