Managers at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument have finally completed their long-suffering plan for managing the complicated landscape west of Cortez.Eight years in the making, the monument's management plan successfully juggles conflicting demands among recreational users, energy companies and safeguarding ancient cultural resources.
The trickiest issue concerns competing dictates to protect the 30,000 or more archaeological sites that blanket Canyons of the Ancients against gas and oil companies insistent on drilling leases that overlap 80 percent of the monument. These leases date back decades in some cases, and many were issued with little forethought about the consequences to a landscape rich in cultural resources. Despite leases across 143,000 acres of Canyons of the Ancients, there are just 125 producing gas, oil and carbon-dioxide wells.
President Bill Clinton created Canyons of the Ancients by presidential proclamation in 2000, directing the Bureau of Land Management to protect the entire landscape for cultural and natural values, instead of preserving only isolated parcels and fragmented ecosystems. The new management plan implements this direction, working with energy companies to create development plans across larger geographic areas, evaluating all of the cultural resources and settlement clusters, and devising plans for drilling or new roads that avoid disrupting this larger landscape. Previously, a company would just evaluate a single proposed well and road, survey the narrow route for archaeological sites, and not consider the impacts to evidence about the bigger picture of how people settled and used the land over thousands of years. Gas and oil companies bitterly complained about this new 21st-century management approach during public comments. The jury is still out whether they will fight the final plan in court.
Another hot-button issue concerned continued use by mountain bikes of the Sand Canyon trail system. The monument proclamation issued a prohibition on use of motorized and mechanized vehicles, including mountain bikes, off designated roads. Trouble was, bike use was established on a system of trails (not roads) in Sand Canyon, partly at invitation from the BLM and acknowledged by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. The Canyons plan authorizes continued bike use in Sand Canyon as a conditional use, and somewhat dodges the question of what is a road versus a trail by instead referring to a system of travel "routes" that includes both. The plan ultimately accomplishes the end goal of allowing a popular, established use to continue on existing routes while precluding proliferation of new trails and roads in sensitive archaeological areas.
The plan enhances protection for the most undeveloped portions of the landscape, as well. It maintains Woods Canyon and its pueblo site as an undeveloped area open only to foot and horse travel. The plan prioritizes continued protection for the monument's wilderness study areas, and manages adjacent lands for backcountry and primitive recreational activities. The plan also eliminates more than 40 miles of unneeded roads.
The public can review the final plan at www.blm.gov/co/st/en/nm/canm.htmlst/en/nm/canm.html through the end of the month.
Mark Pearson is former director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.