The Colorado National Monument is celebrating it's 100th birthday this year. And for many in the Grand Valley, the best present would be a new title – national park. But the change is hardly is hardly a done deal.
The Colorado National Monument looms large – literally – in the lives of people out here. Just stepping out onto the porch of Tom Kleinschnitz' cottage gives you a sense of that. Look across the little front yard north of Grand Junction and through bare winter trees, red cliffs make a curtain across the western horizon.
KLEINSCHNITZ: "The Monument ridgeline is right in front of me and the Colorado River is right in front of the Monument. So sometimes, particularly on winter mornings, you've got this foggy haze that comes up and then you've got the light shining into the red rocks there. It's just... it's neat to live here."
Kleinschnitz works as a river guide. But plenty of the travelers who float past the Monument’s sandstone monoliths and canyons have never heard of the park. Even when they see signs for it, they still have no idea what it is.
KLEINSCHNITZ: "The word National Monument is very confusing to the public in general ...It's very hard for them to sort out what a particular management area is and why it's designated that way."
That's a concern a lot of people here share. They worry Grand Junction is losing tourists – and tourist dollars – because of the Monument's generic-sounding name.
ANZELMO: "So many of our visitors tell us, 'Gosh, we thought there was like a roadside stone marker to the history of Colorado. I had no idea there was like a little mini grand canyon here.'"
Joan Anzelmo is Superintendent of the Colorado National Monument. She says just having National Park in the name would help with a lot of that confusion. And it could get the area on the radar of the tour companies who organize National Park bus trips.
ANZELMO: "Just by literally the name being a national park it would draw more visibility, more tourism circuit promotion. And so we think it would be an exponential increase over a number of years."
Being a National Park is a status symbol, but Anzelmo says it wouldn’t mean many concrete changes from how the 20-thousand acre Monument is protected and managed now. National Parks, Monuments, Recreation Areas, Historic Sites -- they’re all the same in the eyes of the Park Service.
ANZELMO: "Right now today, the same laws apply here at Colorado National Monument as around the corner at Canyonlands and Arches National Parks."
Conservationists out here first pushed for this land to be a National Park more than a century ago. Only Congress has that power, and Congress just didn’t get around to it. So in 1911, President William Howard Taft designated this area a National Monument instead. There have been periodic campaigns for park status ever since. And now, in its 100th year as a Monument, some boosters are hoping they've found a new champion in Senator Mark Udall.
UDALL: "I also want to make it clear that we’re at the early stages of the process and we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the work ahead."
Last week Udall held a public meeting in Grand Junction on the park proposal. Hundreds of people turned out, many to voice support the idea and its possible economic benefits, others with concerns about the full implications of the change. Would businesses in the Grand Valley have to meet higher air quality standards? Would the park try to expand into nearby conservation areas? Some, like Bill Wagner, warned that more tourism could come at a price for locals.
WAGNER: "If you use it now as a biker, it’s going to be negatively impacted. If you use the Monument as a hiker, you’re going to be negatively impacted. If you use the Monument for spiritual purposes, you’re going to be negatively impacted by the numbers that this designation will bring."
Two of the big players in the Grand Valley -- the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce and the regional business organization Club 20 -- haven’t taken a position on the National Park proposal, yet. After the meeting, Chamber of Commerce president Diane Schwenke said she wants to make sure groups like hers have a lot of say in anything that happens.
SCHWENKE: "We want to be able to address whatever issues there are out there up front. We don’t want unintended consequences that could hamper our quality of life or our ability to grow other aspects of the economy."
Senator Udall said he’s not done hearing from the public as he considers whether to lobby his fellow members of Congress for the designation change.
UDALL: "I think this makes sense to move forward with the process, with more listening sessions and with asking for additional input."
That process could take years … Congress doesn’t move quickly on creating new National Parks. But people here don’t give up easily either -- after all, they’ve been chasing park status for more than a century.