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The lessons of Chimney Rock

Published October 6, 2012 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

On Sept. 21, President Obama signed a proclamation establishing Chimney Rock in southwestern Colorado as a national monument. This is good for Coloradans, good for Americans and ultimately benefits us all. How can this be? We are so accustomed to the notion that a benefit for some must come at a cost to others, that something that benefits the many must have a very expensive hidden catch.

It doesn't have to be so, and Chimney Rock is a good example.

With local and (rare) political support across the aisle, Chimney Rock was recognized as a site as spiritually important to Native Americans as it is historically important to more recent transplants. From an economic standpoint, many understand that the monument designation will increase visitation and revenues. A recent study supports that supposition.

But monument status also places clear boundaries on the relative value of money: Economies based on extractive, destructive, depletive, boom-bust cycles need not apply. Steady, sustainable and relatively low-impact "industries" centered on tourism conform closely with the two-fold mission of preservation and protection in perpetuity that is mandated for national monuments.

Many also understand that thinking beyond artificial borders is important. Proclaiming a tract of land a national monument sends a very clear message: This is for all Americans, not just the local, the few, or those who can afford it. After all, we are Americans first and Utahns second.

While Chimney Rock itself is small, water, wind and wildlife cross borders with impunity on much larger swaths of land. In most cases, thinking and acting regionally benefits the land and wildlife as well as the citizens of this country.

In southeastern Utah sits the heart of the Colorado Plateau: Greater Canyonlands. Decades ago, early conservation visionaries understood that we should be preserving lands along hydrogeologic lines, not by political whim or the fancies of land speculators.

The first proposals to protect these lands varied from 1.5 million to 4 million acres. Not surprisingly, politicians, extractive industries and the federal Bureau of Reclamation (which wanted to build a dam below the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers) beat these proposals into submission.

When, finally — over much resistance from our own Utah Legislature — Congress declared Canyonlands a national park in 1964, its boundary was a mere shadow of its formerly drafted outline and included only 260,000 acres. Even with the addition of another 60,000 acres in 1971, much of Greater Canyonlands remains unprotected.

As our population increases, so do the demands on our resources. Abundant water, clean air, untrammeled lands, and wildlife habitat are all under attack. The urge to think short-term — drill now, worry later — is very human, but still dangerous. Kicking the can down the tracks does not move it out of harm's way.

Many of our legislators demonize the federal government when it suits their political needs. They would stake claim to American lands that belong to us all, sell to the highest bidder and privatize at will. Some clamor to "take back" the land (only Native Americans can legitimately make that claim), as if riding off-highway vehicles wherever, or drilling wells whenever, were a God-given right (or spelled out in the Constitution).

This mind-set truly does benefit the few at the expense of the many.

What can Utahns learn from Chimney Rock? The issues and scope are different, but the principles of wise stewardship, seeking the greatest benefit for the greatest number, taking the long view, and striving for partnership are the same. This is the bedrock upon which to build a Greater Canyonlands National Monument for us all.

Jeff Clay is a photographer and information technology consultant for small business and nonprofits living in Salt Lake City.