Three months after being denied for a third time a permit to stage a portion of the USA Pro Challenge Cycling race through the Colorado National Monument (CNM), the Grand Junction Local Organizing Committee (LOC) is still hoping for a different answer.
The National Park Service recently announced it would conduct an Environmental Assessment by developing a "Visitor Activity and Commercial Service Plan" to engage the community in determining what special uses should be allowed in the national monument.
"A formal plan will show transparency," and help streamline the process of permitting special events, CNM Superintendent Lisa Eckert said.
Each year, the national monument receives numerous requests to allow special events and allows those that fit within National Park guidelines. However, the professional Pro Challenge bike race is one the park service has found incompatible with federal law and NPS policies.
To make the race more appealing to CNM officials in past years, organizers made concessions in their requests (like reducing the number of race laps across the monument, fewer aircraft, support vehicles). And, former CNM superintendent Joan Anzelmo offered to allow the racers a "ceremonial lap" along Rim Rock Road - one that would not require aircraft overhead or a road closure.
But, LOC member Scott Mercier said then that a ceremonial lap wasn't acceptable, that "these are pro-athletes. We will not get them to come for a ceremonial lap."
With the monument's Rim Rock Drive currently not an option, the GJ Local Organizing Committee has come up with other potential routes for a local stage of the race. The LOC plans to submit a proposal today to event manager Medalist Sports in hopes of winning a stage in the August 2013 race.
Routes include Palisade wine and orchard country, Fruita farmlands, across the Grand Mesa, or a climb up Lands End Road or Little Park Road.
Organizers, however, have not yet given up on ultimately securing a stage through the monument.
Race organizers "have been aware and engaged with discussions with the Colorado National Monument," LOC Chairman John Hopkins said. "Should something change with the monument, we'll amend the proposal to include that as well."
Hopkins, National Park Service Intermountain Region Director John Wessels, and U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, plus others whom Hopkins would not disclose, met privately in Grand Junction in September to talk about the LOC's bike race proposals.
"I'm very appreciative Secretary Salazar visited with us and spent time to talk about our goals," Hopkins said. "The secretary has a very positive view of how parks - in close proximity to communities - can work together to benefit each other. It was a very positive conversation. He gave us an opportunity to more fully express how the race could be beneficial."
A Pro Challenge bike race in the area would be televised in 190 countries and would advance Salazar's vision of promoting international tourism to the area, Hopkins said.
Lisa Eckert knew what she was getting into when she took over as Colorado National Monument superintendent last spring after Anzelmo retired in 2011. Eckert said she came up with the idea of a new community input plan early on to help resolve issues concerning the ongoing controversy surrounding the bike race and the monument. She and Wessels collaborated on the idea.
The plan "is an opportunity to educate everybody, including elected officials, about the mission of the national parks," she said.
"The plan wasn't devised to change the policies and rules because I can't do that," Eckert said. "It's to promote clarity about the decision-making process, and also to hear from the community about activities and commercial services," such as guided interpretive bike tours and catering events that serve the visiting public.
"We want to ask the public what's appropriate and a necessary activity" for the park, she added.
The park service has secured funding to hire a third-party facilitator to help guide the discussions between the agency and the public, and to write the Visitor Activity and Commercial Services Plan. Public meetings will be scheduled in 2013.
Bike race organizers hope the new Visitor Activity plan will be an opening for allowing the Pro Challenge race to take place in the monument.
"Greenwire," an online environmental and energy policy publication, and other media have suggested recently that there has been pressure on the park service from elected officials to allow the Pro Challenge race to take place in the Colorado National Monument.
Park Service spokesman Rick Frost of Denver's regional office denies that charge.
"The plan is being developed because of increasing numbers of visitor activities in the monument," Frost said. "We want a conversation with the community. And, we want to help them understand the constraints we have as we exercise our responsibility as stewards of the national monument, which is a national treasure."
LOC members have accused the park service of being inconsistent with how it issues permits for special events.
And over the years, critics have questioned a number of events through the CNM. Tour of the Moon Cycling Classic, a bike event that took place on the monument's Rim Rock Road Oct. 6, is one example.
Park management policies state that superintendents may only allow events that have a "meaningful association" with a park, and that events must foster visitor understanding of the area. Additionally, park management policies prohibit for-profit events that award participants with more than a nominal prize or appearance fees. Total prize money awarded during the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge was more than $172,000, according to Medalist Sports.
Tour of the Moon, which pumped $700,000 into the community according to the Grand Junction Visitors and Convention Bureau, was a tour, not a race. Bicyclists stopped along the way at various viewpoints to look at the scenery and take photos.
Grand Junction gave $5,000 to Tour of the Moon to use toward advertising that event. That's compared to the $150,000 the city is prepared to spend to offset organizer costs if the Pro Challenge comes to town. The city believes the national and international exposure is worth the money.
Whether a Pro Challenge bike race takes place in the monument or an alternate route, the Grand Junction Visitors and Convention Bureau believe the race would put the Grand Valley on "the international cycling map," director Barb Bowman said.
"We feel we have so much opportunity and riding options here," Bowman said. "The routes we put in this year are fantastic."
That's why David Nimkin of the National Parks Conservation Association is puzzled over the LOC's persistence in pursuing a race stage in the national monument.
"The Western Slope is beautiful," and there are so many good potential routes, Nimkin said.
"This is a national monument and it belongs to all of us. Allowing a commercial endeavor within a national park is divergent from our very purpose of what our national parks are.
"It's clear there is not a high level of understanding of the mission of the park service. A process that helps the public, media, politicians be cognizant of what a national park is and isn't could be helpful."