A Classic Western Quarrel:
A History of the Road Controversy at Colorado National Monument
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A prevalent theme in the history of the American West is the conflict between westerners and the federal government over public land policy. The conflict stems from changes in the federal government's nineteenth-century public land policies and the way in which these changes affected westerners accustomed to unrestricted use of that land. Throughout the late nineteenth century, incentives such as the Homestead Act of 1862, the Timber Culture Act of 1873, and the Desert Land Act of 1876 were used to entice people to settle the West and to facilitate private ownership of the land. Not yet equipped to handle the management of the public domain, the government instead disposed of the land through legislation. [1]

In 1872, when Yellowstone National Park was established, the government's role shifted from temporary custodianship to "permanent land management." [2] As the conservation movement emerged in the early twentieth century, the federal government withdrew millions of acres from the public domain. Government agencies, including the Forest Service in 1905, National Park Service in 1916, and the product of the Grazing Service and General Land Office—the Bureau of Land Management in 1946—were formed to administer these lands. By 1909, there were 159 national forests encompassing 151 million acres of western land. Conservation-minded President Theodore Roosevelt established five national parks, sixteen national monuments and fifty-one wildlife sanctuaries and withdrew 50 million acres of coal lands during his term in office. Shortly after Roosevelt's presidency, the federal government began to regulate and charge fees for grazing. [3]

Responses to the conservation movement indicated that many Westerners were concerned about the increasingly restrictive nature of federal land policies. Between 1907 and 1915, six public land conferences were held in the western states, providing ranchers the opportunity to voice their opinions over the news that grazing fees might be charged in national forest lands. A generation later, between 1940 and 1943, Nevada Senator Patrick McCarran held committee hearings to discuss transferring control of grazing lands to state ownership. [4] By the 1970s, a pattern of local resistance to federal land policies was well established.

A more radical form of resistance, the "Sagebrush Rebellion" briefly emerged from 1979 to 1981. Considered more symbolic than substantive, the "rebellion" effectively began in 1979 with the passage of Assembly Bill 413 by the sixty-member Nevada Legislature. Assembly Bill 413 was a public land act in which the state of Nevada called for state control of "certain lands within the state boundaries" under the administration of the Bureau of Land Management. [5] Totaling 48 million acres, this BLM land comprised 79 percent of the state of Nevada. According to the authors of AB 413, the Sagebrush Rebellion was fueled by the perception that the federal government was both ignorant and unsympathetic to the impact of its policies on the West. [6] Supporting the movement's inherently anti-government rhetoric, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico soon joined in the "rebellion." In the fall of 1979, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch introduced legislation proposing the transfer from federal to state ownership of 544 million acres of land in thirteen western states. [7]

Proposed "Sagebrush" legislation revealed the percentage of western lands administered by the federal government. More than half of the land mass of the western United States is federally managed. Individual state percentages appear startling: Utah was 64 percent federally managed, Idaho 63 percent, Wyoming 47 percent, Arizona 42 percent, and Colorado 36 percent. In contrast, no more than 12 percent of any state east of Colorado is federally managed. [8] Historically, however, the United States has always held the title to more land in the west than in the east. [9] Three "superbureaus" administer the majority of western land: the National Park Service administers 20,000,000 acres, the Forest Service manages 163,420,000, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees 174 million acres. [10]

Of the three superbureaus, the National Park Service exercises the most restrictive land use policies. Unlike the Forest Service and BLM, the Park Service generally does not allow multiple use activities in its parks and monuments. Its 1916 mission "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of the future generations" created conflicts from the moment of its inception. [11] During first Park Service Director Stephen Mather's administration, dams, stockmen, miners, fires, wildlife disease, and World War I threatened the Park Service's land use policies. [12] By the late 1970s, threats included "residential development, energy extraction, and industrial development" as well as air and water pollution. [13]

Historically, the National Park Service has encountered one of its biggest challenges in the western attitude toward public land use. The commonly held belief that all public lands, including national parks, were meant for private and public use, created numerous conflicts between local communities and the National Park Service. The history of the Colorado National Monument and its adjacent communities in many ways exemplifies the conflict over public land use in the West. The scenario is a familiar one. Prior to the creation of Colorado National Monument, the communities of the Grand Valley built roads, trails, stock driveways, and water pipelines through the future park. When the Colorado National Monument was established, these uses were either restricted or prohibited. As the years passed, relations between Park Service employees and the local population became increasingly tense.

At the heart of the conflict was the issue of public access to and through the park. Road building before and after the Monument's creation was an important element of early and later interaction between the local communities and the National Park Service. Early efforts to build a local road to Glade Park via the Monument coincided with efforts to build a scenic road through the Monument. In fact, the first adequate route to Glade Park—Serpents Trail—was also the first scenic road through the park. The dual purpose of this road fueled later controversy over the Park Service's replacement road—Rim Rock Drive.

Interwoven into this story of conflict is also one of cooperation between the local community and the National Park Service. Local civic groups were instrumental in the creation, early development, and initial administration of Colorado National Monument. During the depression, communities of the Grand Valley provided labor and some financial support to the Park Service for the construction of Rim Rock Drive. At the same time these communities benefitted greatly from federal funding for the road project.

The evolving relationship (1911-1986) between the Colorado National Monument and its adjacent communities embodies many of the elements of western public land conflicts. At Colorado National Monument, road building and road use served as the medium through which the conflict was expressed. The local attitude toward land use and the changing economic needs of the Grand Valley contrasted with Park Service ideology, increased regulations, and frequent changes in the administration of the park.

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Last Updated: 09-Feb-2005