A DUMBED-DOWN DEFINITION OF ‘MONUMENTAL’
by Todd Hartley
I’ve been doing a bunch of research recently on Browns Canyon National Monument, which many of you may not realize is now a thing. It’s over on the other side of Independence Pass from Aspen, on the far side of the Arkansas River between Buena Vista and Salida, roughly.
If you know Browns Canyon at all, it’s probably from having floated through it. It’s a very popular rafting trip. The area was just designated as a national monument by President Barack Obama back in February, but activists in Chaffee County have been pushing for the designation for decades. The monument is one of 16 new national monuments designated by Obama so far, and it brings the national total to 114.
Now, I’ve never visited Browns Canyon, and I only rafted through it once eons ago, so I can’t say what kind of a place it is. It sounds very nice, and I’m all for preserving wildlands by whatever designation necessary, but I’ve driven the stretch of U.S. Highway 285 that runs parallel to the monument countless times, and I’ve never looked east across the Arkansas and thought it looked monumental. It may be. I’m just saying it never drew my eye.
But anyway, this column isn’t about Browns Canyon. It’s about what I fear Browns Canyon represents. A lot of the push for national-monument status on the local level is driven by economics. Rural areas such as Chaffee County hope that a glitzier title will help boost tourism. I think that’s great, and I hope it works out for them.
But I think that having sufficient motive to push for monument status for 40 years blinds people to an important fact: If it took four decades for the place to be called a national monument, maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe, in a place as grand as Colorado, it doesn’t really stand out as much as they might think it does.
I fear that this spate of monument designating, for all its positives, cheapens the brand a bit. Colorado now has eight national monuments, most of which you’ve never heard of and some of which are fairly nondescript.
There used to be three monuments in the state you might have heard of — Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Great Sand Dunes and Colorado — but only Colorado is still a national monument. Black Canyon and the Great Sand Dunes were named national parks in 1999 and 2004, respectively, for exactly the same economic reasons that drive the push for monument designation.
To me, all three places epitomized what national monuments should be. They’re spectacular, and they’re concentrated in relatively small areas. It’s sort of like they’re things rather than places, if that makes any sense.
For example, no one likes Black Canyon any more than I do. It’s awesome. I love going there. But I still question whether it deserves to be a national park. The really deep stretch of the canyon just doesn’t go on for that long, and the area surrounding it is unremarkable.
Black Canyon, to me, seemed much better suited to being a national monument, but when one compares it with, say, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, it’s no wonder people on the Western Slope thought Black Canyon should be a national park.
So, in a roundabout way, we come to the subject of this column: Colorado National Monument. Folks down in Fruita and Grand Junction have been clamoring for many years to have the monument’s sandstone spires, cliffs and canyons redesignated as a national park. I can understand why. Compared with, say, Yucca House National Monument, it’s epic. But compared with any random chunk of scenery about 100 miles southwest of Grand Junction, it’s actually not that big a deal.
I had the thought a few weeks ago while biking in Canyonlands National Park that Colorado National Monument could be lifted in its entirety from its current location and dropped in a canyon in Canyonlands and you would never see it again.
I haven’t been to all of America’s national parks, but I’ve been to enough to know that places such as Canyonlands, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Arches and Zion stand out on a global level. These are places that compare, scenery-wise, to anything the rest of the world can offer.
By that measure, I just don’t think Colorado National Monument measures up. I don’t have anything against it; I just feel like national-park status should be reserved for places made of grander stuff.
Todd Hartley’s name would be mud in Grand Junction if anyone there ever read this column.