Colorado National Monument’s interpretation chief says farewell; leaves behind rich legacy of programming
Michelle Wheatley beams when she talks about a child who spots a desert bighorn sheep during a first-time visit to Colorado National Monument.
As the monument’s chief of interpretation, education and visitor services, Wheatley has been instrumental in introducing both kids and adults to the great outdoors, whether it’s leading visitors on walks and talks, writing numerous grants to bring local schoolchildren to the monument, or working with community partners to organize special events inside the park.
A couple of weeks ago at Devils’ Kitchen picnic area, 100 schoolchildren were listening to a ranger talk about desert bighorn sheep when a young girl pointed toward a cliff and asked, “Is that what you’re talking about?” Everyone turned around to see seven full-curled rams standing on a nearby cliff, Wheatley said.
“It was the highlight of the week,” she said.
Wheatley will leave behind an outdoor education legacy when she leaves the national monument today to become superintendent of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Florissant, Colo.
Wheatley established Colorado National Monument’s first standalone division of interpretation, education and visitor services. She said she saw the need for improving interpretive services at the park, and with the support and leadership of the superintendents at the time, first Bruce Noble and then Joan Anzelmo, together they identified the needs of both the local residents and the visiting public.
“I wrote lots of grants; we worked closely with community partners such as School District 51, the Visitor and Convention Bureau and the Colorado Welcome Center,” as well as agency partners like the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, Wheatley said.
Replacing outdated, 46-year-old exhibits at the visitor center was one of the highlights during her eight-year tenure at the monument, Wheatley said. The project involved deciding what stories to tell and how.
“We worked with the Northern Utes” to develop the Ute exhibit, Wheatley said. It was important to consult the Indian tribe whose ancestors once lived in the area, she said.
Additionally, park service staff located and interviewed a couple of men in their 90s who helped build Rim Rock Drive, the park’s historic roadway that was constructed during the 1930s to 1950s.
Last year, the park service completed new interpretive panels along Rim Rock Drive to help people understand what they are seeing when gazing out into the canyon.
Soon, there will be a smartphone app that visitors can download at various overlooks — a project that Wheatley has worked on for the past two years in collaboration with the University of Northern Arizona.
“It will be a portable way to make information available when you’re in the park, any hour of the day,” she said. “It’s a way to stay relevant with the younger generation; a new way to reach a different audience. It’ll be rolled out this fall.”
Jack Connolly, a Colorado National Monument Association (CNMA) board member, said the large number of grants that Wheatley wrote for the monument had a big impact on the park’s overall budget and what the park has been able to accomplish regarding such things as trail development and school programs.
“Michelle Wheatley dedicated herself to building a bridge between the monument and the community,” another CNMA board member Ginny McBride said. “She’s a treasure and she will be missed by the association and many others in the Grand Valley.”
The Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau’s Barbara Bowman also praised Wheatley for helping her office promote the valley through events, like Ride The Rockies and Tour of the Moon — both bicycle tours through the monument which attracted out-of-towners and raised money for local nonprofits.
“She really helped us build tourism here into an economic driver,” Bowman said. “We’re really going to miss her for sure.”
Wheatley sought and found funding to bring local schoolchildren to the park — many for the first time.
“I’d hear on a daily basis, that many kids had never been to the monument,” Wheatley said. “As a result of Colorado National Monument working in partnership with the local school district, we’re bridging that gap. More and more students are coming at least once a year.”
Wheatley secured grants from several entities, including the National Park Foundation and the Junior Service League, who she said has been “extremely generous to support school field trips.”
The Colorado National Monument Association has also donated significantly to programs, she said.
“In the last five years we’ve been able to provide over $10,000 in grant funding to support field trips so that local students have opportunities to come to the monument for curriculum-based environmental education,” Wheatley said.
Pomona Elementary schoolteacher Judy Golden said her students have enjoyed not only day trips to the monument but also overnight camping trips to the park, thanks to Wheatley and monument sponsorship.
“Michelle and her team have touched hundreds of students and not just in our district,” Golden said. “She even brought in Ute kids from the Uinta Tribe.
Wheatley said she didn’t do these things alone and is quick to mention her “talented staff.”
In June, 20 Central High School students will attend film camp at the monument, thanks to a grant Wheatley and education park ranger Briana Board applied for from the National Park Foundation.
Students participating in the “Local Teens Behind Scenes” program will create films with the help of Board and Rocky Mountain PBS documentarian Greg Mikolai. Students will shoot footage in the monument during morning and evening hours. In the afternoon they’ll work on editing their films at the Colorado Mesa University campus, where they will spend the night in dormitories that week.
“I won’t be here to see it, but I’ll be with the staff in spirit,” Wheatley said.
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is located near Woodland Park, about 45 miles west of Colorado Springs. It sits at 8,200 feet elevation in a Ponderosa pine forest. Florissant is French for “to flourish.”
The park “is known to have one of the richest fossil assemblages in the world,” Wheatley said. “It’s most famous for its petrified Redwood tree stumps.”
She’ll be there for the June 14 grand opening of a new visitor center featuring a new “state-of-the-art” exhibit, she said.
Wheatley will miss the monument, the community and the drive to work, she said. She said she was often asked if she minded the commute from her home in the Ridges neighborhood to the visitor center on the west end of the park. Actually, she said she considered it a pleasure.
“It’s been a magnificent ride every day,” she said. “Seeing an eagle pick up a snake, approaching the tunnel and seeing bighorn sheep standing on top, or the sunrises and sunsets in the different seasons. It’s been wonderful to experience all the seasons in the monument.”
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