Obama to name Colo.'s Chimney Rock ruins as national monument

President Obama plans to bypass Congress and sign an executive order tomorrow designating the ancient Chimney Rock ruins in southwest Colorado as a new national monument, the administration announced late yesterday.

Obama will designate the 4,700-acre Chimney Rock Archaeological Area as a national monument under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows the president to designate new national monuments without congressional approval. It will mark the third time Obama has used the act to designate a national monument. The president in November 2011 declared his first national monument at Fort Monroe in Virginia and his second monument designation in April at California's Fort Ord.

Chimney Rock, which is part of the San Juan National Forest, will remain under the control of the Forest Service and become the service's seventh national monument.

The Forest Service plans to hold a ceremony marking the formal presidential designation tomorrow at the Chimney Rock site near Pagosa Springs, Colo. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are expected to attend.

The announcement of the national monument designation was greeted with enthusiasm by Colorado's congressional delegation, including Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, who along with Republican Rep. Scott Tipton have sponsored national monument legislation for Chimney Rock that has stalled in the Senate.


"This designation, which I have repeatedly pushed for, is a win-win for the people of southwest Colorado," Udall said in a statement. "In addition to drawing tourists to the area, the designation will create jobs and fuel economic growth in Pagosa Springs and surrounding communities."

A recent study commissioned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and released in July concluded that designating Chimney Rock as a national monument would double the economic impact the site already has on the region, pumping in an additional $1.2 million to the area.

Bennet said Obama's national monument designation ensures the site's "spectacular geologic formation with extraordinary cultural, historical and archaeological significance" will be protected and preserved.

"Coloradans have made it clear that those attributes should be matched with national monument status," Bennet said in a statement. "For the last three years we've been making that case to Congress and more recently we've been urging the administration to use its authority under the Antiquities Act."

But designating Chimney Rock a national monument without congressional approval could inflame tensions that already exist between Democrats and conservationists who want to see more public lands protected and GOP leaders who contend that removing these lands from energy development and other uses costs badly needed jobs in rural Western communities.

Tipton said in a statement today that he would have preferred congressional legislation rather than a presidential designation.

Republicans in the House passed a bill in April that would require the president to gain the consent of a state's governor and legislature before designating new monuments, although that bill has yet to gain traction in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The House in May did approve a bill (H.R. 2621) sponsored by Tipton that calls for designating the Chimney Rock site a national monument. Tipton's bill would maintain existing uses such as grazing near Chimney Rock, while protecting the area from mineral development and elevating its status as a tourist destination (E&E Daily, May 17).

A companion bill (S. 508) introduced last year by Bennet and co-sponsored by Udall remains mired in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where markups of noncontroversial bills have been hobbled by larger partisan policy battles.

In April, Udall, Bennet and Tipton sent a two-page letter to Obama urging his administration to begin talking with local community leaders to gauge support for various options to make Chimney Rock a national monument, including a presidential declaration.

"I'm a strong believer that this and all public lands designations be locally driven, and as such the preferred method to advance this designation would be through legislation developed with extensive community input, such as my bill," Tipton said in a statement.

But he added, "I'm ultimately pleased to see a Chimney Rock National Monument becoming a reality."

The Colorado leaders' urgency is grounded not only on the cultural and historic significance of the ancient Puebloan structures at the site but also on lingering concerns about proper management of the site.

Critics have long noted that the Forest Service is not required to inventory or plan for the management of culturally significant sites like Chimney Rock, and it dedicates no specific funding to maintain the archaeological treasures at the site (Land Letter, Oct. 6, 2011).

For those activities, the Forest Service depends on the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association, a volunteer group granted a special-use permit by the agency to lead guided tours and to help maintain the archaeological site, restroom facilities and trails and a visitors center cabin. The association, composed mostly of retirees, leads more than 10,000 visitors each year on tours of the site between May and September.

National monument designations historically have brought increased federal funding and resources to sites and surrounding areas, thereby providing for higher-quality visitor facilities, more interpretation, better public education and improved site stabilization, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"Chimney Rock helps us understand the story of the Chacoans, ancestors of modern Pueblo Indians, most of whom do not have a written history. Their history is written on the landscape, in the structures and in the traditional cultural practices at places like Chimney Rock," said Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "In a very tangible way, preserving Chimney Rock helps to weave our multicultural nation together."

The Chimney Rock site contains the Great House Pueblo and its twin spires, which were designed so that the moon rises perfectly between the spires every 18.6 years. The structure has earned the Chimney Rock ruins the nickname "America's Stonehenge."

Stephan Lekson, curator of anthropology at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History in Boulder, called the site "a remarkable place" and said that of the many archaeological ruins he has visited nationwide over the years, "Chimney Rock is the most impressive, with its massive Chaco-style masonry walls perched high above the river, with twin sandstone pillars rising just to the east."

That is why protecting the site is so important, said Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition in Denver.

"Chimney Rock's rich past is important to the Pueblos and other tribes across the southwest and making this area a national monument will serve to increase awareness of the special culture and history of southwest Colorado," Jones said in a statement. "This designation will also encourage more people to visit the region and enjoy America's diverse public lands -- proving yet again that protected landscapes play an important role in enhancing local economies."

Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.

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