PAGOSA SPRINGS – It's official.
After about five years of lobbying and congressional negotiating, President Barack Obama signed Chimney Rock National Monument into existence with the stroke of a pen Friday morning in Washington.
Meanwhile, halfway across the country, about 225 people – area residents, conservation groups, Native American tribal leaders and public officials – gathered in a sun-kissed meadow below Chimney Rock's twin spires to commemorate the designation.
Palpable relief and enthusiasm emanated from those assembled, many of whom were heavily invested in the push to achieve monument status.
U.S. Interior Secretary and San Luis Valley native Ken Salazar was one of several dignitaries on hand to speak about the historic worth of Chimney Rock and about the sweeping grassroots effort that made the change possible.
“(This day) really is about celebrating,” Salazar said. “This morning, when President Obama signed the proclamation for this newest of national monuments, he was saying this place would be preserved forever.”
Also making appearances were Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Undersecretary Harris Sherman; U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo; Chandler Sanchez, chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council; U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell; White House Council on Environmental Quality chairwoman Nancy Sutley; Colorado Agriculture Commissioner and former U.S. Rep. John Salazar, brother of the Interior secretary; and veteran Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon.
Zuni Pueblo councilman Mark Martinez opened and closed the proceedings with prayers in his native tongue that spoke to the sacredness of the land.
A team effort
At the podium, there were plenty of thanks to go around. All 10 official speakers had an extensive list of people to acknowledge, including each other. They also lavished praise on the attendees sitting in the seats.
“The president singled out Chimney Rock because of strong support from all of you,” Sutley said. “Local leadership, tribal leadership, the congressional delegation all worked hard to get this designation ... (which) protects a place rich in beauty, history and spirituality.”
“Wow. What a gift to Colorado,” said John Salazar, who recounted a story from his first interaction with Chimney Rock. During his honeymoon 35 years ago, Salazar and his wife stopped to contemplate the beautiful vista and immediately knew “this is something we should protect.”
By the time Sherman approached the podium to speak, most superlatives had already been exhausted.
“John Salazar stole my line, but I'm going to say it anyway – wow,” he joked.
As part of the national monument system, Sherman continued, the Forest Service “stands willing and able to be a steward” of Chimney Rock. He vowed to sustain and bring additional “resources, staff, talent and commitment to the site's day-to-day management.”
The Chimney Rock Interpretive Association, a volunteer group, will continue to lead guided tours of the ruins.
During the ceremony, the volunteers received hearty applause for their tireless work through the years.
“Welcome to Chimney Rock National Monument.” they stood up and told the crowd.
“I wanted to get them used to saying that,” said San Juan National Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles, who served as master of ceremonies. “That's what they'll be saying on the tours tomorrow.”
“This is an example of how volunteerism can make a difference,” Sherman said. “They are the unsung heroes.”
A rare consensus
Monument status drew strong support from businesses, county commissioners, tribal councils, nonprofits and politicians of all stripes.
“It was a uniformity you don't often see,” said Vilsack. “The president was impressed by that. It wasn't a hard case to make.”
Bennet agreed: “(This process) set the standard for cooperation and deliberation that Congress should be following.”
Before Obama's involvement, Congress had the opportunity to pass a monument bill on its own. As Representative, John Salazar visited Chimney Rock in 2009 and voiced his intent to pursue legislation; he and Bennet went on to introduce pro-monument bills in May 2010, but both were stymied. After unseating Salazar in the fall 2010 mid-term election, Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, picked up the torch as well.
Tipton's monument bill passed the House earlier this year, but Bennet's corresponding Senate version failed to clear the Natural Resources Committee due to bickering between senior Republican and Democratic leaders.
In April, Bennet, Tipton and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., sent a letter to Obama urging executive action under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Their case, combined with community backing, was persuasive enough to convince the president.
Future economic benefits made it easy for business associations in Archuleta and La Plata counties to get on board, too.
Monument status is expected to attract greater funding for research, archaeological excavations and facility upgrades at the 4,700-acre site. In addition, an analysis commissioned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation earlier this summer projected the number of annual visitors to double in five years to 24,000 – and with them, a $1.2 million boost to the area economy.
During negotiations, care was taken to ensure that regional Native American tribes – the “First Americans,” to borrow a phrase from Ken Salazar – were supportive of the proposal.
In May, the All Indian Pueblo Council approved a resolution in favor of monument status. The official White House proclamation issued Friday morning includes language protecting historic hunting and gathering treaty rights. A management plan currently being written will preserve access for spiritual rituals and traditional food and medicine gathering, according to a news release from the Forest Service.
“All 20 governors are very glad (with the decision),” said Sanchez.
He sensed spiritual approval from his ancient predecessors as well: “Looking up, I can almost see my ancestors looking down with a happy heart.”