According to a memorandum leaked to the Washington Post earlier this week, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has proposed substantial changes in boundaries and management policies for 10 national monuments. Changes would affect monuments created by presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
The proposed changes would benefit commercial users and businesses, including mining and timbering interests, cattle ranchers, commercial fishing, and oil and gas exploration and production. Of the 10 monuments, six would shrink and/or change boundaries.
While the details of the plan have yet to be made public, polls show that the overwhelming majority of Americans oppose any changes, including residents of the Western states where most of the affected areas are located.
Count me among them. Although I’m dismayed by the angrily partisan demonization of Montana native Zinke, I think his proposal is misguided.
When I was born here in 1940, Colorado Springs was a city of 37,000 in a state of 1.1 million. Today, we’re a city of 465,000 in a state of 5.5 million.
We were a city with amazing parks (Garden of the Gods, Palmer Park and Monument Park) in a state blessed with millions of acres of public lands, much of it wild and pristine. Fourteeners were to admire from a distance, not climb (that was for experts and eccentrics, like Bob Ormes and Betsy Cowles). No one wandered around above timberline, except sheep-herders and rock collectors. There was plenty of room for everybody, including recreational shooters, fishers, hikers, butterfly collectors, campers and tourists.
But by the early 1990s, it was clear to many that our once-bountiful local recreational opportunities had been overwhelmed by population growth, not to mention a burgeoning visitor industry. Approved in 1997, the Trails & Open Space Coalition enabled the city to acquire and preserve multiple parcels of recreational open space, including the 789-acre Red Rock Canyon open space. That’s given us some breathing room — but we can’t stop now.
Since the city was founded in 1871, we’ve never stopped growing. If I can fend off the grim reaper for another 20 years, I may be around to see the population of the Pikes Peak region hit 1 million as the state reaches 8 million.
We won’t be alone. The population of the United States doubled between 1950 and 2010, with Western states on the cutting edge of growth. Demographers project our current estimated population of 325 million will reach 450 million by the end of the century, while the world’s population will increase from 7.5 billion to more than 11 billion.
How many treks up our state’s 54 Fourteeners took place in 1940? Absent any records, I’d guess less than 200. According to the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative there were 311,000 treks in 2016.
“There are at least 10 times more people hiking around the backcountry now than in 1990,” David Swersky, a 37-year veteran of Aspen Mountain Rescue, recently told the Denver Post.
Those numbers will continue to increase, despite complaints by old-timers that the high altitudes have been ruined by the high multitudes. That’s one way to look at it — but we should be glad that most of the high summits in Colorado are on public land, there to climb if you so choose.
This is not a time to downsize national monuments and remove existing land use restrictions. Such actions may benefit transient commercial interests, but will almost certainly degrade the recreational, ecological and even spiritual amenities that the monuments offer to us and to those who will take our place.
Consider the least known, least visited and by far the largest monument on Zinke’s list, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Consisting of six isolated and largely uninhabited atolls and islands southwest of Hawaii, the 490,343-square-mile monument was created by George W. Bush just before he left office. He characterized it as “the most widespread collection of marine- and terrestrial-life protected areas on the planet under a single country’s jurisdiction.”
To permit commercial fishing in this vast and pristine environment is wrongheaded. Today’s oceans are grossly overfished, thanks to rapacious international fleets operating in a largely lawless environment. Permitting commercial fishing in the monument would be like allowing commercial fishing with nets, dynamite and poison in Montana’s Madison River.
Most of us will never visit the Pacific Remote Islands Monument, but I’m glad that it exists. Thanks, George W. — you left an amazing legacy. Secretary Zinke: Please don’t screw it up!