Soon to be a national park?

Article by Marcia Darnell

Sand Dunes – February 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

A PROPOSAL IS ON THE TABLE to turn the Great __Sand Dunes National Monument into a national park. No big deal on paper, but the long-range implications have San Luis Valley residents talking.

The issues are the increased crowds at the Dunes, and the resulting pollution and development; whether delicate natural habitat would be more or less safe in a park; property tax revenue; road-building; and, of course, water.

Water is the biggie. The Dunes proposal includes the purchase of all or part of the Baca Ranch, which has been the focus of the Valley’s water fight for a decade. The incorporation of the ranch into a national park would preserve the water for a long, long time. And that prospect has made even the skeptics agreeable to the idea.

The train is pulling out. Draped in red, white and blue banners, the engine chugs along, sounding its whistle in celebration. The cars are filled with joyful people waving flags, throwing confetti, and singing the national anthem. Citizens line the rails, shouting and leaping with excitement.

Except for one guy who’s standing apart from the hoopla, arms crossed, saying, “Man, I hope this thing doesn’t derail.”

The plan was revealed to the public on Dec. 18 by a 27-member group called Citizens for Monument-to-Park Conversion. Dion Stewart, the group’s spokesman, led the presentation to a crowd of 70, many of them affiliated with environmental groups.

Stewart explained that the ecosystem and habitat of the Dunes is considered to have global significance, and that Medano Creek, which runs along the dunes, is the cleanest water in the Rio Grande watershed. A national park, he said, could serve as a tool for education about water in the west: it would include recharge and discharge areas, confined and unconfined aquifers, and wells all in the same place.

He shared a vision of tourism dollars, motel and restaurant development, and new roads into the dunes, including a highway into the Wet Mountain Valley.

The last ideas evoked gasps of horror from the crowd, and led to a discussion of Environmental Impact Statements (there will be one, but only after the park designation is official) and public input into development plans (one is promised).

David Montgomery, is co-chair of the SLV Ecosystem Council, a home-grown, home-run, Valley-wide environmental group dedicated to balancing biodiversity with human needs and maintaining rural lifestyle and sustainability.

“I am very much opposed to improving the road over Medano Pass,” he said. He’s also concerned about “opening up areas that haven’t had traffic for thousands of years.

“Whenever people enter the picture,” he said, “the destruction outweighs the benefits almost every time.”

In an interesting twist, the group most resistant to the plan was the Saguache County commissioners. The Dunes monument rests in their domain, and the commissioners, who are supposed to have some say over land use in their county, weren’t notified of the park plan. An expansion of private land into a park would mean the loss of $68,000 in property tax revenue to the county, which could be a heavy hit to its schools.

AFTER ABOUT AN HOUR of discussion and debate, the inevitable question was, “Can we get the Baca without converting the Dunes to a park?”

The answer is, probably not. The purchase price of the ranch has been speculated at $35 million to $50 million, and who — besides Uncle Sam — has that kind of money to buy land and just hold it?

And the uncle is hot for this deal. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt came to the Valley Dec. 18 to hike in the sand and endorse the proposal, along with Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Wayne Allard, Rep. Scott McInnis, and state Attorney General Ken Salazar. Letters in support of the project were signed by Rep. Diana DeGette and Gov. Bill Owens. State pols Al Gagliardi and Gigi Dennis were in attendance.

Also at the “Sand Dunes Summit” was Mark Burget, state director of The Nature Conservancy. According to Babbitt, Burget is leading the negotiations for the purchase of the Baca Ranch. Burget said he couldn’t confirm or deny this report, hinting at a delicate situation.

Gary Boyce, managing partner of Cabeza de Baca LLC, which owns the Baca, said that no one has approached him with an offer to buy the property.

According to the politicos at the summit, this conversion was a grassroots movement that they all supported. Jokes flew about bipartisan cooperation, and McInnis said there was no need for political wheeling and dealing on this plan. Babbitt urged Congress to “get this done in the coming year.”

Campbell cited growth as a reason that protection is imperative, and said the Baca acquisition will end battles for water in the San Luis Valley.

That premise is getting people on board.

Catherine McNeil, president of the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, initially took a “wait-and-see attitude” to the plan, but then said, “I’m open to the idea of a national park, if in fact we can be guaranteed that the water is perpetually protected by federal government ownership.”

Cathy Garcia, executive director of Action 22, was at the summit and favors the conversion. “I like the idea very much,” she said, “because I think it will protect the park for a long period of time and I think it’s also an economic development tool to bring visitors to the area.”

Garcia said that if the park becomes reality, Action 22 may make it the basis for a tourism plan for southern and Central Colorado.

The big water protection group in the Valley, Citizens for San Luis Valley Water, is behind the plan, too. Chris Canaly, head of the organization, sees it as an opportunity to protect the water permanently.

“I’ve been trying for the last decade to figure out a way to protect the aquifers,” she said. “I think it’s a good idea. This is an opportunity — if done well — that could end up serving the Valley on many different levels. It’s an opportunity to build more emissaries, because hopefully there’ll be more people coming here, and we can educate them about the land and the water, and that’s something people can take home with them, whether they live in Boston or Illinois, and maybe they’ll start thinking about water where they live.”

OTHERS ALSO FORESEE a ripple effect of education. Michael Blenden works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and manages the Alamosa and Monte Vista wildlife refuges.

Blenden hopes for a spillover of visitors from the Dunes to the refuges, and greater protection of the wetlands that comprise them. The FWS is “wholeheartedly” behind the plan, he said, and will help maintain the area in any way it can.

“We’ve got to look at the big picture,” he said, ‘which is protecting water and land.”

Even the lawyers are on board. David Harrison, attorney for the Conejos Water Conservation District, said the park scenario “looks very optimistic.” He pointed out that protecting the water on the Baca will benefit the whole San Luis Valley.

“Hydrologic balance is the name of the game,” he said.

Montgomery is with it, too, albeit with reservations. “Tourism is better than a subdivision,” said the environmentalist.

THE NEXT STOP for this train is the proverbial act of Congress, which despite the enthusiasm of Colorado legislators, could take some time. The process to convert Black Canyon of the Gunnison to a national park took 13 years from bright idea to ribbon cutting.

After the designation is made, an advisory panel is formed for a planning process (typically two years) for roads and other development in the park.

“It’s not mandated that it be two years,” said Steve Chaney, superintendent of the monument, “but we are required by the National Environmental Policy Act to develop a general management plan that would include significant public input.”

Montgomery of the SLV Ecosystem Council pointed out that “how that committee is stacked, who the players are, will be very important.”

Chaney, who came to the Dunes two years ago from Arches in Utah, said the staff at the Dunes won’t be affected in terms of salary or job duties.

“We hope Congress would provide resources to manage an increased area and increased complexity of resources,” he said.

Federal dollars are allocated on the basis of need, he said, not whether an area is a monument or park. It’s conceivable that the Dunes could double in size and receive no extra money.

If government money isn’t a sure thing, neither are tourist dollars. Figures from other parks show that the number of visitors increases 10 to 15 percent after conversion from a monument. Since the Dunes are 45 minutes from Alamosa and almost twice that far from Salida, it’s hard to predict a big benefit to the local economies.

So it comes down to the water and whether we can get it and if we can keep it protected, even under federal stewardship. It comes down to making a deal and hoping the deal will be worthwhile.

And to that one guy standing by the train, hoping it doesn’t derail right into his house.

Marcia Darnell lives and writes in the San Luis Valley. She enjoys hiking the trails at the Dunes in September, after the tourists are gone.