As a close neighbor and regular user of Colorado National Monument in western Colorado close to Grand Junction, I suffered a sharp attack of NIMBYism when I heard of a 2011 proposal to turn one of the nation’s oldest national monuments into one of its smallest, newest national parks.
I blanched at the prospects of tour-company motor coaches imperiling cyclists on the winding, narrow route through the park. I dreaded a cluster of water slides and curio shops draped like tasteless bling around a natural jewel.
According to surveys by a study panel appointed to gauge community support, I wasn’t alone. Only about 40 percent favored a change to park status. Another 40 percent howled in outrage against, awhile 20 percent just shrugged. Given the lack of enthusiasm, last year the group told its sponsors, Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall and Republican Rep. Scott Tipton, that it would not forward a recommendation.
Apparently, that was the wrong answer.
Early in 2013, supporters began a new campaign based on local pride and tourism to counter the area’s energy-related boom-and-bust cycles. But while I’m OK with pride, the economic claims struck me as overblown.
According to Park Service reports, the three national parks created in the region since 1994 have not brought marked visitor growth after being upgraded from national monuments. Furthermore, national parks attendance is flattening overall, with declines at many parks masked by modest increases at a few mega-parks. The reasons: Cheap fuel for extended automobile vacations is history, the age of the average visitor is rising, and today’s youth have different ideas about vacation.
In short, the national park label cannot transform a small monument from a drive-through tourist experience into an overnight-stay sensation. Even granting a 10 percent visitation lift — a rate not exhibited by other monument-to-park transitions — the new revenue produced would be the equivalent of one McDonald’s store’s annual sales. That’s hardly “critical to stabilizing the local economy,” as claimed by one park advocacy group.
In Arizona’s Saguaro National Park, according to a case study published in Park Science, “The vast majority of current visitors are local recreationists, with the number of bicycles now approaching the number of cars” on one popular route. A study of Rocky Mountain National Park, situated close to the urbanized Front Range, found much the same thing: 46 percent of its non-local visitors came from within Colorado.
Looking at all of the nation’s national parks, 29 percent of visits were day trips by local residents, with another 40 percent day trips from 60 miles or more.
The evidence suggests that the modest attendance bump from park status and limited overnight stays just wouldn’t have much impact, economically or otherwise. Nonetheless, two years after naming the first committee, Udall and Tipton introduced a new “community-driven” process to draft legislation creating the park. Now, supporters of the change have vaulted into the driver’s seat.
Speaking for those of us riding in the back of this vehicle, I hope the new group will think critically about what the Grand Junction area already has going for it and separate that from wishful thinking about a beloved landmark.
May they accurately weigh the stimulus value of a few seasonal, low-wage, tourism jobs. May they accept that air quality isn’t just an issue for the energy and agriculture industries; it also affects outdoor recreation, temperatures, scenic views, and ultimately, real estate values. And rather than focus purely on how park status might affect residents, they might consider the reality that houses continue to sprout up right next to a wonderful place of natural beauty that needs more protection, not more development.
Clearly, there’s a risk of a dissonant outcome. Consider Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the heart of Utah’s popular canyon country, where it’s a challenge for a visitor to find a place to stay or a friendly set of directions. Or think of the tacky Dollywood-outlet-mall embrace at the heavily visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Grand Valley is already the region’s educational and health-care center, and it’s developing a reputation as a cycling and wine-tasting mecca. Its scenic views and recreational opportunities attract lifestyle retirees, business owners and professionals who build houses, buy cars, seek medical care and support local institutions. These new residents reflect the changing economy in the West, where non-labor income constitutes more than one-third of all personal income.
Tourism’s fine, if that’s all you have to sell. But boosters here should build on the proposition that accessible public lands by any name are a year-round amenity in an already vital community. They don’t have be called “national parks” to be protected as national — and local — treasures.
Charlie Quimby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer and retired marketing agency owner who lives in Grand Junction. “Monument Road,” his novel set in the Grand Valley, is set for release in November.