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By Lindsey Bright
“What a good day.”
“This is truly a great day.”
These were the sentiments announced last Friday during a celebration at the Chimney Rock National Monument. That’s right. Chimney Rock is no longer simply an archeological area. Last Friday, Chimney Rock became a national monument.
However, before the day and the site were lauded by national, state and local dignitaries, volunteers with the Chimney Rock Interpretative Association (CRIA) were given their due.
“This could not have been done without the dedication and hard work of the volunteers,” San Juan National Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles said. The dedication by the volunteers and by the people of Pagosa Springs was a highlight of the celebration.
The reason national monument designation matters is simple: conservation and preservation. National monument status, similar to a national forest or park, is a federal designation given to protect an area of federal land.
“Boy, does this place have local community support,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“CRIA fought hard for this designation. They showed collaboration and perseverance,” USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Harris Sherman said.
But, perhaps the comment that showed just how important the CRIA volunteers and the local community had been in making Chimney Rock a national monument came from Nancy Sutley, the chair for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “President Obama singled out Chimney Rock because of all the support from all of you,” she said.
“If there is a more beautiful place on this planet right now, I’m not sure where it would be,” said Sen. Michael Bennet.
Bennet said thank you to the local leaders, to the CRIA volunteers, and to “the tribes perhaps above all else, whose spirit is represented here.” Then, Bennet sent out a big thank you to President Obama whose signature made Chimney Rock a national monument.
“This isn’t just for Colorado. This is for the entire country. Thank you,” Bennet said to the very large crowd that was gathered.
Chimney Rock is only the third location that President Obama has designated a national monument through use of the Antiquities Act of 1906. Obama previously designated Fort Monroe in Virginia and Fort Ord in California as national monuments.
First exercised by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 to designate Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, the Antiquities Act has since been used by several presidents to protect unique natural and historic features in America, such as the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty and Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients.
“This place has the unique ability to bring people together,” Vilsack said of Chimney Rock, then added that wherever it was that Theodore Roosevelt was, he would be smiling because, “Doggone sure the Antiquities Act is intended to protect places like this.”
In addition to acknowledging the tireless efforts of the CRIA volunteers, many of the speakers highlighted another point: national monument designation tends to improve tourism and economic conditions for a community.
“Good conservation is almost always good economics,” Vilsack said.
John Salazar, the commissioner of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, first fell in love with Chimney Rock on his honeymoon. His wife was taking a geology course at the time, and as they both looked upon the grandeur of Chimney Rock, his wife said to him, “This is something we ought to protect.” And now, 35 years later, “Chimney Rock can finally have its history told,” Salazar said, adding the monument status is “a gift,” that will “spur the economy on.”
As an archaeological area, Chimney Rock welcomed 12,000 people per year. During that time, the Chimney Rock Interpretative Association, staffed solely with volunteers, ran the gift shop, gave tours; the volunteers, under the supervision of Pagosa Ranger District Archaeologist Wendy Sutton, kept Chimney Rock open, allowing the public to share in its many wonders.
After this designation, however, Chimney Rock will be managed under the U.S. Forest Service, only the seventh monument to be so managed.
In addition to the economic benefits this designation is predicted to bring to Pagosa Country, it will also provide the opportunity to tell the story of the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived at Chimney Rock millennia ago.
“Today we honor the first Americans and their culture they have handed us, so let’s give them a hand,” U.S. Department of the Interior Ken Salazar said.
“It’s an honor to be here today,” USFS Chief Tom Tidwell said, giving special thanks to the tribal leaders willing to share the spiritual site.
The Pueblo people’s presence in Chimney Rock can be traced all the way back to 1598.
Chandler Sanchez, chairman for the All Indian Pueblo Council, thanked everyone who came to the dedication ceremony. “This site is very sacred, and I am very happy it is designated a national monument,” Sanchez said. “Thank you President Obama for continuing to protect and conserve sacred sites,” Sanchez told the cheering crowd.
Sanchez continued, saying that, with this designation, more tourists would be coming to Pagosa Springs following a stop at Chimney Rock.
“I can almost see my ancestors looking down on us with a big and happy heart because Chimney Rock will be protected by the U.S. Forest Service. Now my ancestors are happy,” Sanchez said.
As of now, the first step for the U.S. Forest Service to take is to create a management plan stating what will need to change in management practices as Chimney Rock National Monument transitions from the reins of volunteers to the Forest Service. Until the plan is created, no details of the transition will be known. What is known, though, is that, according to Sherman, “The U.S. Forest Service stands ready, willing and able to be stewards of this site.”