A Classic Western Quarrel:
A History of the Road Controversy at Colorado National Monument
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The Otto Years: 1911-30

The impact of the Colorado National Monument's establishment was not immediately understood by its adjacent communities. For most of the parks first nineteen years—1911 to 1930—local populations continued to use the area for recreational and non-recreational purposes with little or no knowledge of how national monument status changed the area. Even with the National Park Service's establishment in 1916, federal guidance in the administration and development of the park was limited. In fact, the Park Service's indifference to the park's needs was often frustrating to local park promoters. Consequently, community leaders in Grand Junction and Fruita took an active role in promoting and eventually administering the park. Frustrations over Park Service regulations and general cynicism toward the federal government emerged for the first time during these years.

Otto's Agenda

An important influence on the early development of the park was, not surprisingly, John Otto. The formal establishment of the Colorado National Monument did not exhaust Otto's enthusiasm for the project. After 1911, his early energy for the "park proposition" metamorphosed into a concerted effort to develop the park. His plans for the park, and the manner in which he pursued those plans, were pivotal to the way in which the community reacted to the park and eventually to the Park Service. Otto's years as custodian reflected a typical western frustration with the federal government in general. As the sole caretaker for the park, he was often left to enforce the rules of an absentee Park Service. This necessarily created resentment in Otto and eventually in those local residents who helped to develop the park.

Representative Taylor suggested Otto for the custodian position shortly after the establishment of the Colorado National Monument. Otto's nominal salary of one dollar a month came from a government contingency find, which made him an official federal employee, and authorized him to run the park. [170] Despite the meager salary, he took the job very seriously. Aided by his letter-writing skills, Otto worked to improve roads and trails, waged a relentless campaign to achieve national park status for the Monument, and even established a game preserve complete with elk and buffalo.

In terms of developing the relationship with the local community, however, Otto's attempt to enforce regulations in the park was his most important contribution. Technically, he should have been enforcing the Antiquities Act; instead he created his own form of law enforcement. Otto's interpretation of park regulations included a wide variety of restrictions. In one of his fliers, entitled "The Colorado National Monument: Regulations," he outlined his interpretation of the law in this way:

No Guns of any kind permitted. No Posts, Christmas Trees or Green Stuff of any kind to be cut. No Wood to be taken without a permit. The marking of autographs, dates, initials, drawings, or other pencilings or carvings of any kind whatsoever, and the painting or posting of advertising signs on the rimrock walls or rocks or trees, is prohibited. Do not set fire to growing trees or roll rocks down the sides of the canon. Be careful in selecting the spot for your camp fire so as not to scorch the surrounding trees, rock, etc. Assist in keeping the park clean. Wherever you camp or eat your lunch, clean up all waste paper, boxes, plates, tin cans, etc. Leave no refuse. [171]

In his attempt to restrict local use of the park, John Otto bore the burden of enforcing regulations single-handedly. More importantly, these rules created a chasm between Otto and those local residents not interested in park development of any kind. His attempts to enforce the regulations also indicated that some local residents, especially ranchers from Glade Park, felt that the Monument was like any other part of the public domain and should be similarly used.

Most of Otto's efforts to protect the park were aggravated by its location, insufficient manpower, and local residents either unfamiliar with, or resistant to, the regulations. Because portions of the park were still used for stock drives, Otto frequently charged ranchers with trespassing. On several occasions he became quite aggressive. As early as 1913, Otto complained that some "half-witted cowpunchers" known as the Smithy brothers continued to drive their cattle over the park's trails, despite warnings that the trails were for horses and people only. According to Otto, "other cow people have never attempted to drive stock over these trails," so it seems that Otto previously tried to familiarize people with park policy. He eventually requested that a federal court address the matter of convicting these men. [172] The General Land Office notified the "cow outfit" that continued illegal use would result in a hearing before the U.S. District Attorney. [173] Otto did his best to enforce regulations on his own, but often sought advice from the General Land Office, and later, the Park Service.

Another far more colorful trespassing case began in the winter of 1914-15, when what Otto referred to as a "Kaiser-worshiping, Hun-principled sheep man" named Gus Bullerdick brought his sheep to the mouth of the Monument Canyon. It is not clear how Otto issued warnings regarding trespassing, but his relations with Bullerdick indicate that he was not diplomatic. In fact, Otto admitted that Bullerdick was the only person he "ever had to pack a gun for." [174] On one occasion, Bullerdick threatened to split Otto's head with an axe. [175] In the winter of 1918, Bullerdick again tested Otto's patience, when he and his sheep broke through the fence across the mouth of Monument Canyon. Later that year, he allowed his sheep to graze near the intake of the Fruita water system near the park's west entrance. In January, 1919, Bullerdick brought his herd of more than 1,000 sheep to the upper rim rocks of the park. [176] For Otto this was the final straw. He appealed to Stephen Mather, then Director of the National Park Service, for advice.

Mather's response to Otto indicated that regulations regarding national park lands were quite specific, and that it was important for local people to understand their significance. He advised Otto to enlighten Bullerdick regarding Section 56 of the Criminal Code which stated the following:

Whoever shall drive any cattle, horses, hogs, or other livestock upon any such lands (that is, any lands of the United States in pursuance of any law that have been reserved or purchased by the United States for any public use) for the purpose of destroying the grass or trees on said lands, or where they may destroy the said grass or trees shall be fined not more than $500, or imprisoned not more than one year, or both. [177]

Bullerdick was warned that if he continued to ignore regulations, criminal proceedings would be brought against him. Otto's hope that the Park Service would "prosecute him good and right" was an indication that an authority other than Otto was needed to oversee problems of this nature. [178] The Smithy brothers, and the Bullerdick case reveal that some individuals were either not aware or were openly defiant of regulations within the park. These situations also reflect the kind of attitude that many local residents held toward the park—that public lands were to be used, not preserved.

Problems with trespassing plagued Otto's years as custodian, but enforcement of regulations extended into other areas as well. In some cases, individuals were so incensed by these regulations that they appealed to the Secretary of the Interior. This occurred when Otto started a wood hauling business in the park. With the proceeds he hoped to finance the completion of a scenic road through the park. Otto initiated the enterprise during World War I when economically depressed conditions characterized the Grand Valley. Thinking he could alleviate some of the hardship, Otto wrote to the Department of the Interior, requesting permission to supply dead wood from the park for people to heat their homes. At the end of the war, Otto decided to issue permits for 50 cents a load for anyone willing to haul his own wood out of the park. When one resident took wood without a permit, Otto promptly obtained a search warrant, and went to the man's home to collect the money. [179] Another resident, W.H. Post, appealed to the Secretary of the Interior, claiming that it was "unamerican to make old timers" pay for wood "taken from any Park or from the public domain." [180] Although Post's comment was directed at Otto's wood business, it also symbolizes the overall feeling among many westerners: that the public domain, even when a national park was involved, was for public use. Otto frequently encountered this attitude.

The wood hauling business was equally frustrating to Otto, who originally hoped to use the funds to finance his road. His repeated requests for Park Service appropriations over the years were denied. To make matters worse, once the National Park Service learned that he was making money off the wood business, they demanded that he send them every dime. Otto set up an account worth $35.05 in the Bank of Grand Junction. He agreed to send it to the Park Service but hoped to keep 10 percent of the money as commission. The Park Service refused him that as well. [181] This interaction typified Otto's relationship with the National Park Service, which was absent during the first years of the park's development.

As the park's first custodian, Otto naturally shaped local views of the new park. Unfortunately, he was in a position where he gained little support from Park Service officials and increasingly alienated himself from local residents. Nevertheless, other aspects of Otto's agenda for the park were beneficial to local interests. His involvement in road building efforts throughout the Grand Valley and in the Colorado National Monument, for example, allowed him to work cooperatively with local communities.

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Last Updated: 09-Feb-2005