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Monumental issues: Reaction varies to the draft plan for Canyons of the Ancients, but defining roads is a contentious point
By Gail Binkly
It’s a pair of documents totaling around 900 pages, but so far the main points of dispute involving Canyons of the Ancients National Monument’s draft resource management plan boil down to two issues:
• What, exactly, is a road?
• Is it appropriate to consider a cultural “landscape” and “community” when making decisions about specific projects?
“The biggest issues are the ‘community’ discussion and the definition of a road,” said monument Manager LouAnn Jacobson. “At the open houses [in October in Durango, Cortez and Denver] there wasn’t much other than those two – just some isolated concerns.”
With the public comment period on the plan and its accompanying draft environmental impact statement not ending until Jan. 30, however, there is plenty of time for more issues to emerge.
The draft plan, which has been in the works for five year, offers five alternatives for managing the 165,000-acre monument. Alternative I is “no action,” meaning to leave things essentially as they are.
Alternative II is the most restrictive and strongly emphasizes protection of resources at the price of closing many roads and trails and restricting uses. Alternatives III and IV are friendlier to resource use and development such as oil-drilling, grazing and recreation.
Alternative V, the BLM’s preferred alternative, seeks a compromise between extremes.
So far, most reaction to the longawaited plan, and the BLM’s preferred alternative, has been cautiously approving.
“It looks to me like the preferred alternative was a pretty decent attempt to reflect what our committee came up with,” said Chuck McAfee, who served on the monument advisory committee, a group started in 2003 to help shape the management plan, for three years.
“Our overall take is that we’re pretty happy with the preferred alternative, both the transportation plan and the way they’re dealing with recreation,” said Amber Clark of the San Juan Citizens Alliance’s Cortez office, “the main exception being the definition of a road.
“We’re very displeased with how they’ve decided to define a road and, more than that, we’re concerned about the far-reaching impacts it could have.”
A bad precedent?
The road issue stems down to efforts by the BLM, the m o n u m e n t ’ s m a n a g i n g agency, to wrestle with a line in the presidential proclamation that created the monument in June 2000. The proclamation states: “For the purpose of protecting the objects identified above, the Secretary of the Interior shall prohibit all motorized and mechanized vehicle use off road, except for emergency or authorized administrative purposes.”
“Mechanized vehicles” obviously would include bicycles – but mountainbiking in the Sand and East Rock canyons area on the monument is enormously popular. The single-track trails there are considered world-class by fat-tire enthusiasts.
The issue of whether the practice is consistent with the monument’s proclamation was raised in a Jan. 15, 2004, letter from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a national nonprofit. The trust considered suing over the issue, but a compromise was reached that re-routed some bike trails and let cycling continue while the BLM developed its management plan.
The draft plan attempts to handle the problem by saying, “…a ‘road’ is defined as an open way for the passage of vehicles, persons or animals on land, regardless of the type of travel; and ‘off-road’ is defined as cross-country travel between designated roads.”
That would mean that mountain-biking in Sand Canyon was not actually “off-road” because the trails would be labeled roads.
The problem with that, Clark said, is the definition could be used nationwide to mean that any foot or animal path acquires road status.
“We’re not against mountain-biking in Sand Canyon, but we’re concerned that a legal definition of a road like that could be used on public lands all across the West,” she said. “It’s a really bad precedent to be setting.”
At a Nov. 30 meeting of the monument advisory committee, which has become a subgroup of the Southwest Resource Advisory Committee (a citizens group that advises the BLM in Southwest Colorado), members of the committee likewise voiced concerns about the definition.
“Public foot and horse trails are listed as roads?” asked Bill Lipe, an archaeologist. “That really does seem to open it up.”
Chris Majors, a rancher who holds grazing allotments on about one-quarter of the land on the monument, expressed incredulity as well. “This loophole was all created for the mountain bikes in Sand Canyon?” he asked.
Jacobson said that was correct, adding that all the plan’s official roads are two-track or wider except those popular single-track routes in Sand and East Rock canyons. However, she said, the Sand Canyon trail was authorized in 1987 and has always been used by cyclists – though their numbers have exploded in recent years.
She said the BLM is getting numer- ous suggestions on how to clarify the language so it would allow biking without being so broad, and she is hopeful of finding a solution.
The other broad issue that has been raised about the draft plan is its emphasis on protecting cultural resources on a “landscape” scale. The monument was established to protect the many Ancestral Puebloan and other historic artifacts and ruins it contains; it has the highest known density of archaeological sites in the United States.
“The Monument . . .. was established to preserve these objects on a landscape scale,” the plan’s executive summary states. “The scientific value of the objects is enhanced when their relationship is examined in a broad comparative context rather than individually. . . Therefore, protection of the objects at this landscape level is critical.”
There is likewise an emphasis on protecting cultural “communities” rather than just individual sites. Under the BLM’s preferred management alternative for extraction of fluid minerals (oil and gas), for instance, “no direct impacts to cultural resource communities and/or sites would be allowed.”
At the Nov. 30 meeting of the monument subgroup, committee member Bob Clayton of Kinder-Morgan CO2 Co., which extracts carbon dioxide in much of the monument for transport to the Texas oil fields, argued that protecting “communities” could be a hardship for oil and gas companies and did not always make sense.
For instance, he said, the area lying between two cultural sites might have been cleared for farming by the Ancestral Puebloans, making it an artificial landscape anyway, “so why not drill there?”
“To me it maybe looks like what it did in those days,” Clayton said. He added that oil and gas disturbance is not permanent but generally lasts “20, 30, 40 years, which in time is small, so I guess I have trouble looking at how that [drilling] is having an effect.”
Archaeologist Mark Varien, also on the committee, said researchers define sites as areas with the densest concentrations of artifacts, but areas between them still contain artifacts that show how that area was used. Farming areas might have a scattering of tools, plus pollen in the soil to show what was being farmed.
“So the impact [of drilling] is erasing that information,” he said. “It’s not just how it looked, but the fact there is some evidence in those areas.” However, Varien emphasized he was not saying all such areas should be protected.
Montezuma County Commissioner Gerald Koppenhafer said he would like to see the language about “community” and “landscape” removed entirely from the plan because the terms are too broad. “Any decision you make could be challenged,” Koppenhafer said.
Varien and Lipe likewise had concerns about the terms. Varien said the concept of Geographic Area Development Plans (GADPs), which is also used in the plan, would be preferable. GADPs are developed when an oil or gas project is proposed and identify optimal locations for wells, production facilities, access and utility corridors.
“Seems to me you have the tools you need,” Varien said. “You don’t need the community and landscape concepts.”
Lipe agreed. “They’re useful, but it’s hard to say how you would use them on an actual landscape.”
Even Clark told the Free Press she had doubts about how the BLM would apply the concepts on the ground. “As it is, they just look at the immediate area [when considering a project such as an oil or gas well],” she said. “They can grant a well pad between two cultural sites rather than looking at a larger area. I think [considering the landscape] is a really good goal, but it’s not completely clear to us how they would do that.”
A lot of zeroes
Of course, other possible points of contention are emerging about the draft plan. The document addresses five main planning issues: Cultural resources, oil and gas, rangeland resources, recreation, and transportation. The BLM’s preferred alternative contains potentially controversial recommendations in each category.
Concerning cultural resources, under the preferred alternative, 13 to 25 Ancestral Puebloan sites would be categorized as “developed” for public visitation, including Lowry, Sand Canyon, and Painted Hand pueblos, Saddlehorn Hamlet in Sand Canyon, and the Escalante and Dominguez pueblos at the Anasazi Heritage Center. Such sites would be publicized, stabilized, and provided with some infrastructure.
Other sites would remain for visitors to explore on their own in the backcountry. In addition, the standing walls of ruins would be documented and then allowed to deteriorate naturally, with some stabilization allowed at the discretion of the monument manager, such as in cases where walls were damaged by vandalism.
Jacobson told the monument committee Nov. 30 that Native American tribes had said their preference was “to allow sites to deteriorate and go back to the earth.” But also, she said, the BLM simply doesn’t have money to stabilize ruins.
The 1985 management plan for the monument, then managed as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, identified 240 sites with standing architecture and called for stabilizing all 240, Jacobson said. “We’re talking millions and millions,” she said, “a lot of zeroes, to stabilize that many sites.”
The BLM has spent more than $1.5 million just to stabilize Lowry Pueblo, she said. “And then you have to maintain it year after year,” she said. “To stabilize 240 sites is an unimaginable investment to begin with and to continue to maintain them is even more unimaginable. Right now we have no funding for stabilization at all.”
Addressing multiple use
The preferred alternative for oil and gas management would allow up to 880 acres of new leases for the purpose of protecting against drainage, which is when a well is draining a fluid resource from under lands that aren’t leased. In that case, those acres could be leased.
Clark told the Free Press the San Juan Citizens Alliance is fairly pleased with the plan in regard to oil and gas “Overall that’s a pretty small number [of acres] and it comes with a no-surface-occupancy stipulation,” she said. Also, no new roads would be allowed.
But at the Nov. 30 meeting, Clayton, who is production supervisor for Kinder Morgan’s carbon-dioxide operation, said he is concerned the plan would be too restrictive. “Any developer trying to use public land for natural resources is doing it because of public demand,” he said. “We’re not just out there for the fun of it.”
He reiterated concerns about the use of the term “landscape,” saying the monument “should protect identified sites, not whole landscapes.”
“Most of the survey work and discoveries were done because of our presence,” Clayton said.
Kinder-Morgan is seeking to drill a new well on Burro Point on the monument. “We thought we pre-planned well enough, but we’re running into the words “cultural community’ and ‘cultural landscape’,” Clayton said.
Varien asked whether Burro Point would not have posed problems for the CO2 company anyway because of its high density of sites. Clayton said the sites are indeed dense but said the company wants to locate there because “of its geology and the richness of the CO2 source.”
Jacobson said there are 43 sites within 100 feet of the proposed area of disturbance. She said the BLM is having trouble getting a good environmental assessment regarding the Burro Point proposal and is concerned about cumulative impacts there, not only to cultural resources but to recreation and natural resources.
“Just because the monument addresses multiple use doesn’t mean the monument managers don’t have the responsibility of making sure that multiple use is done right,” Varien said.
The preferred alternative would cut the number of AUMS (animal units grazing for one month, defined as a mature cow and a suckling calf) permitted on the monument from the current 8,492 to 6,437. Five grazing allotments totaling 124 AUMs would be eliminated, but four of those are not being used now anyway. All are north of McElmo Canyon in an area seeing heavy recreation and considered to have low forage potential.
Also a rotational grazing system would be implemented, with spring grazing allowed within an allotment no more than one year out of three, and minimum standards for stubble height would be set in riparian systems.
Those ideas meet with approval from the environmental community. “We hope that the agency will actually carry out the improved grazing regimes that it is proposing,” said Roni Egan, executive director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness.
She said much of the monument’s rangeland is in poor condition and “full of noxious weeds.”
“The riparian areas are hammered, by virtue of their having been totally mismanaged long before the monument was ever proclaimed,” Egan said.
“We support what they’re proposing,” Clark agreed. “The five allotments are so small and have been vacant, so it’s not affecting people’s livelihood. I think the BLM was conscious of that. It sounds like they have really worked with the leaseholders and come to an agreement.”
However, some members of the monument subgroup voiced concern about the grazing proposals, particularly the stubble-height standard.
“If we’re going to be judged on that,” Majors asked, “what about when there are 500 or 600 elk on it?”
Jacobson agreed that the movement of elk westward onto the monument has become a concern. She said in regard to the stubble standard and other concerns, she would have to check to see whether the monument had flexibility or whether those standards were set by the agency statewide.
An end to target-shooting
For average citizens, the plan’s recreation and travel components are probably of the most interest.
Penny Wu, recreation planner for the monument and San Juan Public Lands, said there are some significant differences among the five alternatives in terms of managing recreation.
The preferred alternative would define the monument in terms of recreation management zones, each of which would be managed differently.
The BLM’s proposal would allow 169 miles of access roads open to motorized and mechanized uses, as well as non-motorized. A number of user-created roads would be closed.
In contrast, under Alternative II there would be only 139 miles of motorized/ mechanized roads, and under Alternative IV there would be 213 miles and no user-created roads would be closed.
Under the preferred alternative, the popular trails in Sand and East Rock canyons, East Fork and Rock Creek all would be designated for foot, bike and horse. Under the most restrictive alternative, II, only the Sand Canyon trail would be open, and it would be limited to foot travel.
At Pedro Point on the far western edge of the monument, the BLM proposes to have public access by foot and horse only. But under Alternative IV the route would be open to all vehicles, as it is now.
At Woods Canyon, under the preferred alternative, there will be no designated routes. “You can explore on foot and by horses but there would be no motorized or bike trails,” Wu said.
That prospect pleases Clark, who said some old maps showed roads in the area, but really there are none. “It’s a pretty remote part of the monument and it didn’t make sense to have public roads in it,” Clark said.
Under the preferred alternative, camping is allowed throughout the monument except in pueblo sites such as Sand Canyon, Lowry and Painted Hand, Wu said. Under Alternative II, camping would be banned in all Special Recreation Management Areas, of which there are six designated in the plan.
The plan would ban recreational shooting throughout the monument, although hunting would still be allowed in accordance with Colorado law. Target-shooting is causing problems such as vandalism, littering and danger to passersby, monument planners say.
“There are pieces of clay pigeons everywhere, especially at a site near Moqui Lake,” Wu said, “along with cans, bottles and trash. People are plinking at rock faces and signs.”
Clark believes the ban is a good idea. “There is a definite potential for it to impact cultural sites, and it makes sense for safety reasons,” she said.
But Majors told the monument subgroup the ban was “a little extreme” and wouldn’t stop vandals anyway. “Anybody who’s going to shoot an Indian ruin or a sign or a cow is going to do it regardless of whether it’s legal,” he said.
Rock-climbing is also emerging as an issue on the monument. The preferred alternative would allow rappeling, bouldering and rock-climbing in designated areas only.
Ivan Messenger of the new Four Corners Climbing Coalition told the subgroup the number of designated areas should be broadened, adding that the coalition would work with the BLM on access and other issues.
One concern related to transportation is that voiced by private citizens owning inholdings on the monument. There are about 17,500 acres of private inholdings under 31 different owners.
“The biggest concern I’ve heard from private landowners is making sure their access is identified and they have the right to use their private property as they want to,” Koppenhafer said.
He suggested the BLM meet with the county planning department to develop consistency among maps and establish a procedure for such landowners to acquire a formal right-of-way.
One private inholder, Gala Pock, said she is concerned about the BLM’s stance on not widening access roads. “As farm equipment becomes wider, if we can’t widen the roads we won’t be able to farm our land,” she said.
Jacobson noted that it is illegal to widen roads across public lands without a permit, regardless of whether the land is in the monument.
Pock also said, “I think closing usercreated roads, which is all of them, is going to be the death of agriculture.”
Carl Knight of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, a member of the subgroup, also voiced concern about the impacts of the monument plan. He said regulations — “endangered species, wilderness areas, road closures and decreasing the permittees and their livestock” — are “squeezing people out” of their private land.
The monument subgroup agreed to work on language for recommendations it will make to the Southwest RAC regarding changes it wants in the plan.
The document is not final, Jacobson emphasized.
“It’s a draft,” she said. “It’s something to be put out there for discussion.”