March 2015

Monuments and NCAs

In 2000, Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Rep. Scott McInnis co-sponsored legislation to create a Canyons of the Ancients National Conservation Area west of Cortez.

It had a broad base of support that included the Montezuma County Commission and the San Juan Basin Farm Bureau.

However, Campbell and McInnis ultimately withdrew the bill because of vocal opposition from a contingent of local citizens who argued that then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was “bluffing” when he said he would seek a national-monument designation for the 164,000-acre area if the NCA did not go through.

As it turned out, he was not bluffing. The monument was designated by President Clinton later that year.

The situation has some similarities with the current discussion over a possible NCA along the Lower Dolores, but it also has differences.

Babbitt had visited the Canyons of the Ancients area several times and had spoken openly about the need for greater protection for its cultural resources. In contrast, there have been no public visits by such high-ranking officials to the Lower Dolores. Also, the Farm Bureau and the Montezuma County Commission are currently in opposition to an NCA on the Dolores.

Still, some area residents are concerned that President Obama might declare a monument on the Dolores if the NCA legislative effort fails. A 2010 Interior Department memo on “treasured landscapes” discussed a number of areas among the BLM’s holdings that might need greater protection through legislation or national-monument designation. The Dolores was included in a list of areas where wilderness or NCA legislation had been or was expected to be introduced. “The Dolores River carves one of America’s premier wild river canyons on the east side of the Colorado Plateau,” the memo said, adding, “There is potential for up to 500,000 acres of protected public lands in this river basin.”

The Dolores was not included in a list of prospective national-monument designations in the memo, although some sites in neighboring Utah were, such as Cedar Mesa – a fact that has given impetus to Utah’s effort to create a public-lands bill of its own.

The 2010 memo did call on the Obama administration to “Consider use of the Antiquities Act to set aside new National Monuments where there are immediate threats to nationally significant natural or cultural resources. . .”

In an interview with the Cortez Journal in April 2000, McInnis commented on opposition to the Canyons of the Ancients NCA in remarks that seem prescient today.

Noting that opponents claimed they could overturn a national-monument designation through a lawsuit or congressional action, McInnis said, “Politically, you are not going to undo a national monument. That’s just the political reality. Remember, we have very few votes in the West.”

He said politicians in the East “don’t feel any pain” over new land designations and would not vote to do away with a wilderness area or national monument “short of a national emergency.”

Only a few monuments have ever been overturned by Congress, McInnis told the Journal, and that was primarily to replace them with more-restrictive designations such as wilderness or national parks.

Likewise, he was skeptical about the idea of taking the monument designation to court.

“If it’s a lawsuit, who’s going to pay for it? What are the chances?” he said.

As it turned out, McInnis was right. The monument west of Cortez is in place and is unlikely to be removed.

So what are the odds that President Obama might designate a national monument on the Dolores River before he leaves office? No one can be sure. The possibility may be remote, or it may not. What’s clear, however, is that any monuments that Obama does declare – here, in Utah, or elsewhere – are very unlikely to go away, a fact that local leaders need to keep in mind.