Two imaginary lines form a cross in the hilly, scrubby desert of the Southwest. The land is covered with sagebrush, cacti and tumbleweed, and populated mainly by lizards, rattlesnakes, coyotes and scorpions, yet tourists by the hundreds of thousands flock there annually to have their pictures taken in contorted positions reminiscent of the ’70s game “Twister.”
So what’s the deal here?
It’s the Four Corners Monument, that’s what, a site owing its uniqueness and drawing power to the fact that it’s the only place in America where four states meet. The land is owned by the Navajo Nation in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico and by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Colorado.
Many years ago, the site was marked by only a stick surrounded by rocks.
The monument has been upgraded since then, but remains undeniably shabby. For $3 per person, tourists can patronize the Native American vendors hawking jewelry, sand paintings, and other traditional wares from plywood stands surrounding a concrete disc embedded in blacktop. There is no running water, and the only toilets are Porta-Potties.
But now that a final hurdle has been cleared, the attraction just off U.S. Highway 160 is scheduled to get a $4.5 million facelift (or, more accurately, a complete body reconstruction) under a plan that requires state has been a decade in the making but has been bitterly opposed by a local legislator.
Mike Beasley, director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, announced Aug. 22 that DOLA will provide a portion of the funding needed to secure $2.25 million in federal monies to pay for far-reaching improvements. The federal money would no longer have been available after September.
To receive the funding, each of the Four Corners states was supposed to pony up $500,000. Colorado was the last holdout.
Under the agreement, DOLA will kick in $200,000 and the Utes, who had already committed to paying $200,000, will have to come up with another $100,000.
The state money was in jeopardy after state Rep. Mark Larson, R-Cortez, withdrew his support from the project in June, charging that “predatory” business practices by the Utes and concerns about tax issues had caused him to change his mind.
Larson said he did not think the state should “contribute taxes to an entity that contributes no taxes to the state.”
However, the state funding was supported by a number of local leaders who believe a revamped monument would be a boon to tourism.
In a last-ditch effort to save the project, Beasley was invited to meet with tribal and local leaders and see the monument for himself. He toured the site on Aug. 19.
“From the meeting the other day, we managed to secure $200,000, which matches the tribe‚s contribution,” Beasley said in a phone interview Aug. 22. “They were ecstatic about the $200,000 and I encouraged them not to ask me for any more.”
For years the monument, operated by the Navajo Nation, suffered from a lack of funding and care. Torturously hot in the summer and bleak in the winter, it was haunted by hungry dogs and offered few amenities for visitors. The site was spruced up and rebuilt after a fire destroyed the old, ramshackle vendor booths, but many local officials believed major improvements were still needed.
“Ten years ago the state of Arizona came to the tribes and said, ‘There’s a problem (at the monument) — it’s not being well-received by the visitors’, “ Ute Mountain Ute planning director Troy Ralstin said at the Aug. 19 meeting with Beasley.
The Arizona highway department asked the tribes to address “the appalling conditions” at the monument, Ralstin said, and since then that state has already invested $500,000 in the design phase of a plan that was developed with the help of the Four Corners Heritage Council, a group established to promote heritage tourism in the four states.
In 1999 Congress authorized $2 million in federal funding to refurbish the monument, with the condition that each of the four states contribute $500,000 as well. Congress also provided $50,000 a year over five years for initial operations.
Arizona and Utah swiftly agreed, but New Mexico’s then-Gov. Gary Johnson twice vetoed legislation providing for that state’s share. The New Mexico measure was passed and signed by Gov. Bill Richardson soon after his election last fall.
That left only Colorado, which delayed doing anything until last spring. Then the legislature worked out a funding scheme under which the state’s share would be provided through the severance-tax fund controlled by DOLA.
However, DOLA’s funding was temporarily frozen until July 1, the start of the fiscal year, because of the state budget crisis. After that, the expenditure had to be re-authorized.
At that point, Larson, who says his support for the project was only lukewarm, switched his stance. He argued that the monument improvements would benefit only the tribes, and since the Utes pay no state sales taxes, they should contribute Colorado’s share.
Larson also said he was angered by marketing tactics used by Ute Mountain businesses that he believe unfairly take business away from Cortez merchants. Larson said such practices include giving free meals to truckers at the casino’s restaurant and free casino chips to tourists staying at the RV park.
“I consider that predatory,” said Larson, who once owned the M&M Truck Stop south of Cortez but sold it last year to his brother-in-law. “How are Cortez businesses supposed to compete?”
He also argued that the tribe pays almost no state taxes, with the exception of taxes on fuel.
“The tribe does not now nor have they ever collected sales tax on non-Native American sales,” he wrote in a “one-last-effort” plea to Gov. Bill Owens the day after Beasley’s announcement. “The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled several times that the states have a right to collect this tax. . . .”
Larson also noted that the tribal casino operations do not, under the law, contribute to the Contiguous Counties Trust Fund, as do casinos in Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek, and that the Utes do not pay county property taxes.
“The tribe is a sovereign nation that is routinely touting that sovereignty when the state or local government wants cooperation on mutually beneficial issues or attempts to hold tribal government…accountable,” he also wrote.
But Christine Arbogast, a lobbyist for the Utes, rejects those arguments.
“Mark’s position has boggled my mind,” she said. “He views it that the only beneficiary is going to be the tribes. To me it’s completely logical that a $4 million facility down there has got to help the entire area.”
She said the tribe’s practices are “not unlike any other business that uses marketing tools to make their business more successful.”
“What are they supposed to do? Go back to the old days and sit in poverty?” she asked.
And, though the tribe does not pay certain taxes, tribal members regularly shop in Cortez and pay local and state taxes there, she pointed out.
Ute Mountain Tribal Councillor Manuel Heart agreed, commenting that the tribe is the largest employer in Montezuma County, with more than 1,000 persons on its payroll. He added that the tribe does pay severance taxes on oil and gas development.
Obviously pleased by Beasley’s decision, Heart took the opportunity to give Larson a dig.
“We of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe really appreciate the state of Colorado stepping up,” he said, “and I’d really like to thank Sen. (Jim) Isgar and our — make sure you write this —our representative, Ray Rose.” Formerly a part of Larson’s 59th District, the tribe’s lands were made a part of Rose’s district, the 58th, during the last reapportionment.
“We’re pretty positive that we can come up with the other $100,000 before the deadline, Sept. 30,” Heart said.
The Utes and Navajos, who are each contributing a hundred acres to the site, will operate it jointly.
Heart said as soon as a joint management agreement is signed, the National Park Service will release the federal funds to the Four Corners Heritage Council, which will act as the project’s banker. He said the project will be put out for bid once the money is in place.
Water, electricity, and sewer service will be provided by the Navajo Nation through Arizona.
The disc that marks the joining of the Four Corners will be sunk into the center of an amphitheater remote from the vending area with four tree-lined paths leading to it. Handicapped-accessible ramps will go to the four-state juncture.
The redesigned site will include trees, picnic areas, permanent vendor booths, and an interpretive center celebrating Native American culture.
Heart said the interpretive center will help educate visitors about the tribes and the area.
“We have foreigners going to the monument thinking there’s Indians living in teepees.”