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National Monument bill clears committee, support gathers

Letters concerning Archuleta County are pouring into President Barack Obama’s mailbox as part of an amped-up effort to have Chimney Rock Archaeological Area, located 17 miles west of Pagosa Springs, designated as a national monument.

The Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners, Colorado Congressional representation and Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon all sent letters to Obama Friday, April 20.

The BoCC approved their letter at a special meeting on April 20 — the timing coinciding with a letter sent to Obama jointly from Colorado Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, and Colorado Congressman Scott Tipton, as well as with a letter from Aragon.

The letters encourage the commencement of a discussion with the community about whether or not the Antiquities Act of 1906 should be used to administratively designate the site as a national monument.

And it appears another involved agency is actively working toward the same end.

Tuesday morning, the U.S. Forest Service issued a press release concerning a public meeting to be held on May 11, set to be an informational meeting about the Congressional proposals (started in both the Senate and the House of Representatives) to make Chimney Rock a national monument.

That meeting is set to be held from 1-3:30 p.m. on May 11, at the Archuleta County Fairgrounds, located at 344 U.S. 84.

But, just as efforts for an administrative process increased, Tipton’s bill, H.R. 2621, advanced through the House Natural Resources Committee Wednesday morning, taking it one step closer to approval.

“The main thing with us is to get the dialogue started,” said Commissioner Clifford Lucero in a Monday interview concerning the BoCC’s choice to send the letter.

“In recognition of the outstanding community support for protecting and better recognizing this area, we have supported various legislative proposals to accomplish this designation in recent years,” the BoCC letter states. “We respectfully request your engagement in this effort by initiating a community dialogue about establishing a national monument for Chimney Rock via your authority under the Antiquities Act.”

Currently, 3,160 acres are managed by the USFS with help from the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association under a Special Use Permit. Proposals for national monument designation have identified continued management by the USFS.

According to a press release from the USFS, the 3,160-acre site receives 12,000 visitors a year.

Legislative proposals for a national monument at the site by Senator Bennet and Congressman Tipton would protect 4,726 acres of USFS land, “while continuing to allow for hunting, wildlife mitigation, and traditional cultural uses,” as the BoCC’s letter states.

The BoCC and Congressional letters estimate the size under the proposal at 4,700 acres, while Aragon’s letter estimates the size at only 4,000 acres.

When asked to clarify the inconsistency, Aragon said the letter was in general terms, adding that Bennet’s staff had sent him a draft letter and asked for a completed letter in a day and a half, but Aragon noted he should have double checked the information.

“It was just all I could do to get that letter off,” Aragon said.

Inconsistencies aside, all three letters state that the site has failed to receive the recognition and protection it deserves.

“Chimney Rock is a treasure of national significance, offering visitors a window into early Pueblo people’s culture, architecture, and astronomical understanding. As the easternmost and highest elevation Chacoan site, it is also a part of a larger historic and cultural story in the American Southwest,” the BoCC’s letter states. “Despite these values, the volunteer-maintained area lacks national recognition and sufficient protection to ensure its proper maintenance and care for future generations.”

“Chimney Rock is considered by many to be the most significant cultural site managed by the Forest Service nationwide, yet it lacks a designation equal to that stature,” the Congressional letter reads.

Aragon’s letter, too, expressed the same sentiment: “Despite its well-recognized historic and cultural values, and the generous efforts of our community’s volunteers, Chimney Rock lacks the protection it deserves.”

The BoCC’s letter also states a concern the BoCC holds about the lack of action on the proposal thus far, stating, “We appreciate the leadership our Congressional Delegation has shown on this matter, but are also concerned by Congress’ failure to pass this broadly supported and bipartisan measure over the last four years.”

The letters delve into various reasons for making the site a national monument, including its uniqueness, historical significance and economic value to Archuleta County tourism.

According to the BoCC’s letter, the county is well aware of the economic value of public lands.

“The greater recognition and visibility associate with national monument designation for Chimney Rock will add heritage tourism to the list of key economic drivers, bolstering our County’s tourism businesses that continue to struggle with the lagging recession. Accomplishing National Monument designation in the near future will benefit Archuleta County’s businesses, residents, and ultimately help to secure the regional economy for the future,” the letter states.

“A National Monument designation would not only give Chimney Rock the true recognition is deserves, but would also help secure the economic future of the region,” the Congressional letter reads. “Estimates from local economic development agencies indicate that a Monument designation would provide significant growth for local businesses near the site.”

Aragon’s letter, again, follows the sentiment: “In addition, the recognition provided by national monument designation would provide a much-needed economic boost to our county, which continues to suffer from one of the highest unemployment rates in Colorado. The increased visitation and associated tourism spending associated with national monument designation is one reason we are requesting your assistance in securing the protection for the Chimney Rock area at this time.”

The final paragraphs in all three letters include additional pleas to initiate a public process and dialogue about using the Antiquities Act to create a national monument similar to the existing legislative proposal.

“While we still intend to pursue our legislation, we are not naive to the realities of Congressional gridlock in Washington,” the Congressional letter states. “We feel the future economic benefits of a National Monument designation are significant for the region, and those benefits shouldn’t be forestalled because Congress can’t act in a timely manner.”

“While we continue to support legislative efforts to establish a Chimney Rock National Monument, we would like to invite your involvement in our community’s effort to protect this 1,200 year old area for future generations,” the BoCC’s letter states in its closing paragraph.

Aragon’s letter concludes, “An open and transparent process will continue to be greeted by overwhelming community support.”

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