Mediation group leads meetings between park service, Mesa County residents
Organized “Listening Sessions” that took place in the Grand Valley this week between National Park Service staff and community members are rare, but then so is a national monument’s (or park’s) close proximity to a major urban center.
Urban parks present unique situations that require careful balancing between the interests of local communities and the NPS mission to preserve and protect natural and cultural resources for future generations.
The park service held two days of meetings to allow local residents to share with NPS staff their experiences with the park, air grievances regarding park policy, and learn the NPS’s role in managing Colorado National Monument.
Consistency, communication and predictability were common themes mentioned by people at the “special uses” table, facilitated by park service staff Art Hutchins, director of planning for the Inter-Mountain Region, and Wendy Berhman, who focuses on commercial services inside national parks.
Attorney John Williams, a member of the Local Organizing Committee that sought unsuccessfully three times to secure a stage of a professional cycling race through the monument, said his experience with the National Park Service “has not been transparent or an open process.”
“Policies have changed. We like to think we are a collaborative town,” Williams said. “The monument doesn’t feel part of the community anymore. We feel quite shunned in the past several months.”
Williams did not offer specifics when asked to elaborate.
Another visitor, Steve Traudt, complained about “a lack of consistency” in park policy, expressing frustration in his inability in acquiring permission for teaching photography classes in the monument.
Hutchins appeared sympathetic, acknowledging there’s been “confusion” amongst the public regarding what activities are allowed in national parks.
The monument receives 70-80 special park-use permits each year. Park staff consults its rules, regulations and policy when granting permits for various uses.
Recent reports of the Tour of Utah bike race that will pass through Cedar Breaks National Monument and Bryce Canyon National Park apparently sparked confusion among proponents of the USA Pro Challenge bike race.
The roadways through those Utah national parks are state highways, thus, “the parks have no say; they have no authority to deny those permits,” said David Nimkin, southwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association.
A major issue in denying a stage of the Pro Challenge bike race on Rim Rock Road through the monument included the need for closing the park to accommodate the race, Hutchins said.
The monument would have been closed for several hours during a day in July when out-of-town visitation is high.
“We have visitors from out of state,” Hutchins said. As a national park, “we are for people from all over.”
Other public comments included ideas for adding a water station near the park’s east entrance, improving signage on trails, and adding more geological markers.
The Fruita and Grand Junction listening sessions were designed to give the park service and community members an opportunity to learn what kinds of commercial and visitor activities are desired, appropriate and allowable for a national park, said CMN Superintendent Lisa Eckert.
The park service hired CDR Associates, a mediation company based in Boulder, to facilitate the meetings and prepare a report that will be released this fall. Cost of hiring the mediator was $28,000, said Rick Frost, spokesman for the NPS regional office in Denver.
“This is an investment in our relationship with the people of the Grand Valley,” Frost said. “It’s a very important relationship.”
While several people expressed a need for more “open communication” between the public and the park service, others had a different perspective.
Avid hiker and bicyclist Jean McFall said, “I don’t feel the disconnect; I love every experience I’ve ever had with the rangers there.”
Approximately 100 local residents attended the meetings over the course of the two days.
Debbie Kovalik, executive director of the Grand Junction Visitors and Convention Bureau, said, “I’m hopeful these dialogues will expand conversations between the monument, organizations and government entities and the residents of the Grand Valley.”
Kovalik added she’d like to see “better outreach from the NPS to Grand Junction folks.”
Then, as the meeting began to break up, Kovalik said, “I wish there was a bigger turnout (of residents). There’s more of them (park service employees) than us.”
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