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How many portals to the Great Sand Dunes

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

Sand Dunes – February 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

FOR PURPOSES OF SPECULATION here, let us assume that the entire Baca Ranch becomes part of a Great Sand Dunes National Park. What happens next?

As it is, there is only one entrance gate, about 35 miles northeast of Alamosa by either of two routes — let’s call this the Mosca Gate, since that’s the closest post office.

Adding the Baca would bring the north boundary of the Park almost to Crestone, where there is already a maze of roads, both public and private, that lead into the Baca Grant.

Since most of the infrastructure is in place, the logistics of adding a Crestone Gate would be fairly simple, and it would make sense for the Park Service — it’s there to serve the American people, and the more visitors, the better for its budget.

Metro Denver holds most of Colorado’s population and the state’s leading airport. The Mosca Gate is 235 miles from Denver; the Crestone Gate only 196. There are similar distance relaionships for other state portals like Grand Junction and Colorado Springs.

For Salida tourist enterprises, a Crestone Gate would be good for business — a National Park entrance an easy 60 miles away, rather than an obscure National Monument whose entrance is 82 miles away.

And for Saguache County in general, a Crestone Gate could capture sales-tax dollars that would otherwise flow to Alamosa County.

National Park portals attract commercial development, not all of it tasteful — think of Estes Park and Grand Lake outside Rocky Mountain National Park.

Crestone and Baca Grande residents who cherish the place as it is now would likely oppose any development that would turn their quiet community into a zone of franchise motels, fast-food joints, go-kart tracks, miniature-golf courses, rubber-tomahawk stands, and other tourist enterprises.

But a Crestone Gate makes too much sense from a Park Service perspective, and it’s safe to predict that there would be some local support for it on the grounds that Saguache County needs the business.

And in the long run, it may not matter what Crestone wants or doesn’t want. Little mountain towns don’t have much control over their destiny — there are many Leadvillites who wish the place was still a mining town, as well as Salidans who miss the trains.

Travel and tourism form the largest industry in the world, and the economic pressure to build a Crestone Gate will be unrelenting if the Baca Ranch becomes part of Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Many Crestonians might oppose it, but it’s in the interest of the National Park Service, and it would be hard for Saguache County (and Salida) to sit by and watch all those National Park tourism dollars go to Alamosa. If there’s a crystal-ball gazer in Crestone who has truly seen the town’s future, it probably looks a lot like Estes Park.

Could there be another gate, an eastern entrance to the enlarged Great Sand Dunes National Park?

Of course — it’s 9,900-foot Medano Pass, a route that Zebulon Pike may have used in early 1807, and a route that can be driven today if you’re willing to take the chance of getting stuck in the sand.

On the east side, the rough and unpaved Medano Pass road takes off from the hamlet of Bradford, which is on Colo. 69 about three miles south of the Custer-Huerfano county line. That’s only 40 miles from an interstate highway at Walsenburg, and it’s easy to imagine some pressure from the east to improve Medano Pass, so that Huerfano County captures some of those tourist dollars.

The National Park Service has built many popular tourist roads — Trail Ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Going to the Sun Highway in Glacier National Park in Montana, Blue Ridge Parkway in Great Smoky National Park in Virginia.

Isn’t the Park Service supposed to protect the environment, and aren’t roads bad for the environment?

Protecting the environment is only one Park Service goal. It’s also supposed to “provide for the enjoyment” of “the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein” while leaving them “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Obviously, it isn’t always possible to leave something unimpaired while also providing for public enjoyment. Compromises would be necessary even if politics didn’t enter the picture, and politics are a big part of the picture.

As federal appropriations diminish, the Park Service relies more and more on entrance fees for funding, which means it has to compete with Disney World and Six Flags. Put all this together, and if Great Sand Dunes becomes a national park that includes the Baca Ranch, then it appears inevitable that the forces of industrial tourism will enter the Crestone area.