By TOM RIBE
Sen. Martin Heinrich recently introduced a bill in Congress to re-designate Bandelier National Monument as national park.
It is hard to see how this bill benefits either the public or Bandelier.
On its face, this may sound like a bill to give Bandelier more protection, but if this bill passes, I believe it will damage Bandelier’s land and cultural features and diminish the authority of Bandelier’s National Park Service managers.
Sen. Heinrich does many good things for our state and the country and he means well with this bill. His goal is to increase tourism in northern New Mexico for the sake of business in northern New Mexico.
National parks draw more visitors than national monuments do. He also intends to give tribes more authority over Bandelier’s operations and he wants hunters to be able to hunt elk, deer and turkeys in areas currently closed to hunting in upper Bandelier.
Here’s the problem. Bandelier has inadequate funding and facilities to serve the more than 209,000 visitors the park gets every year. Through no fault of the staff, Bandelier’s infrastructure is crumbling, and it doesn’t have restrooms to serve hundreds of busloads of people who arrive every summer, especially during Indian Market and Balloon Fiesta. The trail that most visitors use hasn’t been resurfaced since 1972 and two restrooms up the canyon were closed by the 2011 floods and won’t open again in the foreseeable future. Two toilets per gender serve thousands of people.
Increasing visitation to Bandelier by renaming it a national park would increase spending in local businesses but visitors to the park would face crowding on the trails, long lines for basic services, and less park staff for education and protection. National parks attract about 35% more visitors than national monuments do but at what cost to the parks themselves?
Anyone who has visited Zion National Park recently knows what the big advertising campaign by the state of Utah has done to that park. Zion has become an urban area with people crowded into the canyon and facilities stressed to their limits with inadequate staff to patrol and protect the park and long lines for maxed out shuttles. The number of visitors goes way up while the park budget goes down in real terms.
I fundamentally disagree with the concept of using highly protected public lands to boost tourism and stimulate business. Each generation is charged with handing down the national park system to the next “unimpaired.” Yet visitors to Bandelier concentrate in a small area of the 33,000 acre park. Delicate cultural resources take a pounding from the crowds. Yet Heinrich’s staff lament’s that Bandelier’s visitation is down from its peak of 430,000 in 1996, but even at today’s number the park is stressed to its limit and is grossly understaffed.
A second goal of the Bandelier National Park bill would be to open part of the park to hunting (Bandelier is currently closed to hunting and trapping). Since hunting isn’t allowed in most national parks, 4300 acres of the upper elevations of Bandelier would be re-designated “Bandelier National Preserve” where hunting and trapping could happen. The State of New Mexico would manage the wildlife in this area. Right now, the National Park Service manages the wildlife in Bandelier and all native species are protected.
Already the entire Jemez Mountain range is open to hunting except Bandelier and some tribal lands. Opening this area to hunting will benefit a small number of hunters each year while trappers could come in and kill bobcats and mountain lions, squirrels, coyotes, and any other animal that got killed in their traps.
Finally the bill would allow tribes to conduct traditional ceremonies in Bandelier and close parts (or all) of the park for undetermined amounts of time to do so. Yet tribes have been conducting traditional ceremonial gatherings in Bandelier for decades with the full assistance of the National Park Service. When a particular shrine in the backcountry important to Pueblos was being damaged by tourism, the NPS removed it from maps and stopped mentioning it to the public. Vandalism stopped. The staff at Bandelier does not need to have Congress tell them to do something they have been doing since the 1930s.
Overall it is hard to understand how Senator Heinrich’s Bandelier National Park designation bill benefits the American people. It will crowd the park and stress out visitors and staff, damage facilities and the very features the public comes to see. It will remove protections for wildlife in the upper reaches of the park and it will not increase the budget for the National Park Service.
Visiting Bandelier National Park would be a lessor experience than visiting Bandelier National Monument. Let’s leave well enough alone and not pass this bill. We can promote tourism in ways that won’t damage a fragile and finite national treasure or disempower the professionals who care for it. Instead let’s push for solid budgets for the National Park Service.
Tom Ribe is Executive Director of Caldera Action, a non profit focused on protecting the Jemez Mountains.