A proposal to route a professional bicycle race through Colorado National Monument has pitted the National Park Service against some powerful congressional and state leaders who argue that running a stage of the 600-mile road race through the monument would provide an economic boon to the region.
But some say approving a stage of the 2012 Quiznos Pro Challenge cycling event in the monument would compromise the Park Service's ability to manage its resources in a way that meets mandates to preserve parks and monuments for future generations. Race proponents, meanwhile, are challenging NPS management policies adopted five years ago that discourage the use of parks and monuments for large-scale commercial events.
NPS has already determined that routing more than 100 professional cyclists through the monument would violate federal statutes and Park Service policies. Hosting the Quiznos Pro Challenge -- a brainchild of cycling legend Lance Armstrong and former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) -- would require the monument to be closed to the general public for as long as 12 hours to accommodate potentially tens of thousands of racing fans, as well as dozens of race team vehicles, helicopters and other aircraft that would film the event.
Monument Superintendent Joan Anzelmo ruled in December that "the size and scope of the proposed race stage would result in damaging impacts to Colorado National Monument's natural and cultural resources," including littering "the route and adjacent canyon terrain with paper, plastic, food and beverage debris."
The race would also "disrupt flight patterns and nesting of birds of prey including golden eagles and peregrine falcons," as well as "disrupt desert bighorn sheep mating behavior," Anzelmo wrote.
In an interview this week, Anzelmo said she met personally with a race organizing committee in nearby Grand Junction, Colo., in an effort to explain her reasoning for denying the request.
"They were clearly disappointed I denied the proposal. But this is a mega sporting event, and we have policies that are part of the mission of the Park Service directing managers not to grant permits to these kinds of events," Anzelmo said. "I explained to them that I cannot offer a professional permit for that stage of the race. And ever since then, it's been very interesting."
That is because the proposed race has some very powerful backers, including Sen. Mark Udall (D) and Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), both of whom recently asked NPS to reconsider Anzelmo's denial.
In a Feb. 14 letter to John Wessels, director of the NPS Intermountain region office in Denver, Udall and Hickenlooper wrote that the Grand Junction organizing committee has come up with a revised proposal that scales back the event and addresses some of the superintendent's concerns. They asked Wessels to sit down with the local committee members and work out a compromise that will allow the race to run through Colorado National Monument.
Wessels and Anzelmo are scheduled to sit down with the organizing committee members on Friday.
"If the Monument is able to responsibly host the event while protecting its natural and cultural resources," Udall and Hickenlooper wrote, "we believe that showcasing this majestic area as part of this world-class cycling event will bring beneficial commerce and attention to this important part of the state."
And just this week, Rep. Scott Tipton (R), whose 3rd congressional district includes Colorado National Monument, threw his support behind the measure, telling Wessels in a letter that he would "strongly encourage" the Park Service to consider the revised race proposal, citing "the much needed job creation that it can bring to the area."
As a compromise, Anzelmo has offered to let race organizers run a "ceremonial lap" through the monument site that would limit the number of race fans along the route and restrict the number of race-team vehicles and aircraft.
"We wanted to give them a piece of the monument experience without giving away the whole park," she said. "That was not acceptable to them."
'Danger and adrenaline'
Certainly the backers of the Quiznos Pro Challenge believe the monument could provide a splendid backdrop for the event.
Sponsored by the founders of the Denver-based Quiznos fast food chain, the race is billed by event organizers on its website as "the most demanding professional bike race ever held in America."
An official with Medalist Sports LLC, which is promoting the race, referred questions to a Los Angeles-based public relations firm that declined to comment for this story.
But race organizers say on the website that the inaugural stage race -- set to take place this August, with a Colorado National Monument stage to be added in 2012 -- will include 128 of "the world's best professional cyclists from 16 teams" on a seven-day, 600-mile course that includes stages in Denver, Colorado Springs, Aspen, Vail and other locations across the state.
"The competition, destined to become the most coveted prize in cycling, brings the high speeds, danger and adrenaline of professional cycling to heights more than two miles in elevation, across some of the most picturesque terrain in the world -- the Colorado Rocky Mountains," the event's website states.
That vision would be enhanced significantly by routing the race through Colorado National Monument's picturesque 23-mile-long Rim Rock Drive, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The 32-square-mile monument is well-known for its sweeping valleys, deep cliffs and red rock canyon walls, and the 450-foot-tall Independence Monument -- the last remnant of what was once a towering ridge that stood between Monument and Wedding canyons.
Yet even with the Park Service's documented concerns, the Grand Junction organizing committee continues to lobby for the route.
The seven-member committee includes some of Grand Junction's biggest business leaders, including U.S. Bank regional president Steve Gunderson, Mesa State College president Tim Foster, and Grand Junction Daily Sentinel publisher Jay Seaton, whose editorial board has pushed running the race through the monument as a way to boost the local economy and increase the region's national profile.
Foster, whom NPS officials identified as the agency's main point of contact on the committee, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
The revised plan calls for scaling back the proposal to include two rather than three laps on Rim Rock Drive. Organizers would also limit the number of support vehicles and fans along the race route, as well as require aircraft to remain at 2,000 feet or higher when flying over the monument, according to a Jan. 24 letter to Anzelmo.
"As members of the Grand Junction community, we are very sensitive to the issue of protecting the resources of Colorado National Monument," the committee wrote.
And, they note, organized cycling events have been held inside the monument before.
As recently as last June, Colorado National Monument hosted the noncompetitive "Ride The Rockies" bicycle tour that drew 2,000 cyclists to ride Rim Rock Drive. And thousands more cyclists ride the scenic route by themselves or in small groups every year, according to NPS estimates.
At a grander scale, the Coors International Bicycle Classic hosted a race stage annually at the monument between 1979 and 1988, drawing some of the world's best professionals and throngs of fans. And the monument was used to film the 1985 cycling film "American Flyers," starring Kevin Costner.
'Proposal doesn't fly'
But the "Ride The Rockies" bicycle tour is not a commercial event. And the Coors Classic event and "American Flyers" filming occurred before 2006, when NPS revised its management policies governing the types of events the monument can host. The revised rules state that "the Park Service will not permit the staging of an event in an area open to the public, or the closure of an area that is open to the public," if that event "awards participants ... prizes of more than nominal value."
Officials also note that events like "Ride The Rockies," while having corporate sponsors, do not involve park closures, excessively large crowds or helicopters and airplane flyovers. NPS also believes that use of the monument by amateur cyclists aids the agency's goal to promote public understanding of the monument and its resources.
Such conditions do not apply to professional sporting events. In fact, the 2006 management rules were cited by the Park Service in its 2009 denial of a permit to Medalist Sports -- the same group organizing the Quiznos Pro Challenge -- to host a stage of the Amgen Tour of California through Yosemite National Park.
David Nimkin, southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association in Salt Lake City, said the agency's reasoning is sound. "I really admire the superintendent for denying the [Quiznos Pro Challenge] permit, because according to Park Service policies and regulations, this proposal doesn't fly."
Anzelmo said part of the reason for the change in policy is the agency was receiving more requests to use its sites for commercial events like the Quiznos race.
Federal regulations forbid NPS from authorizing any event that would damage national park resources "or unreasonably impair the atmosphere of peace and tranquility maintained in wilderness, natural, historic, or commemorative zones."
Moreover, critics say if NPS caves to political pressure and allows the Quiznos Pro Challenge to run through Colorado National Monument, it would set a precedent that could lead to decisions opening other national park units to large-scale commercial events.
"The overall commercialization of a national park unit is something that is wholly inappropriate," said Nimkin of NPCA.
But the organizing committee, in its January revised proposal, questioned whether NPS management policies could be used to justify denying the request. The committee argued that it is "an internal management policy that, by its own terms, has no legally binding effect."
They added: "The Management Policies state that they serve 'only to improve the internal management of the National Park Service; they are not intended to, and do not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural.'"
Rick Smith, the executive council chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, said federal statutes and NPS policies clearly allow Anzelmo to reject the bike race request.
"It'd be one thing if they were hazy or murky, but the policies and regulations are just crystal clear," said Smith, a former superintendent at the Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns national parks. "The policies clearly state that you can have a special event in the park when there's a meaningful association between the park area and the event, and when the event will contribute to visitor enjoyment and understanding. The Quiznos Pro Challenge bike race fails to meet both those criteria."
Yet even if NPS management holds firm to its position, race organizers in their revised proposal say the event can "nevertheless comply" with those regulations, adding that the race would "have a positive benefit" for the monument.
"We believe inclusion of Colorado National Monument in the Grand Junction stage will make it a signature stage of the race," the committee wrote. "The national and international exposure will increase awareness and interest in Colorado National Monument and we believe will ultimately contribute to visitor understanding of the park, its significance, its natural and cultural resources or its interpretive themes."
Click here to read NPS's decision denying use of Colorado National Monument for the Quiznos Pro Challenge.
Click here to read the letter to NPS from Udall and Hickenlooper.
Click here to read the local organizing committee's revised proposal.
Click here to read Tipton's letter to NPS.
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.