National Park Service under pressure to allow pro bike race

Sidewalk chalk art at the Breckenridge stage of the 2012 USA Pro Challenge. Bob Berwyn photo.

Former superintendent of Colorado National Monument says new planning process is means to a pre-determined end

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — National park conservation advocates and retired park employees say they’ll carefully watch an upcoming planning process at Colorado National Monument that may have been spurred by pressure from elected officials and special interests.

Park service officials said last week they would launch a public process to evaluate a variety of special uses, including weddings, commercially guided climbing and, not least, professional bike racing.

In a press release, regional NPS director John Wessels said the plan “will bring greater transparency to our decision-making process, and will draw upon the community’s knowledge and connections to the monument to inform our decisions on future activities.”

Unsuccessful efforts by the Grand Junction business community to route a section of the USA Pro Challenge cycling race through the monument may have triggered the planning effort. Based on national regulations and policy, the National Park Service twice rejected a proposal to hold a section of the race in the monument.

Former monument superintendent Joan Anzelmo faced enormous political pressure to allow the race, and was vilified by some members of the local community for her denial. But her decision was backed by regional and national park service officials as being consistent with policies aimed protecting park resources, as well as the long-term public interest.

“A modern day pro bike race is not something that can happen in a national park without great impacts to resources and visitors,” Anzelmo said. “There will be motorcycles and race team vehicles all along the course, with impacts to resources, including desert bighorn sheep, fledgling raptors … the fragile desert crust soil … when you ruin what underpins that soil, it could even lead to flash floods at the base of the canyons,” she said.

“It’s time to press the pause button here … there’s been tremendous behind the scenes pressure from politicians trying to figure out how to force the agency to break its own rules. They’ve all decided this race is so fabulous these exceptions should be made,” she said, adding that the pressure went as far trying to have her removed from her post at the monument.

Anzelmo questioned the timing of the planning process, coming just a few months after high level park service officials affirmed and explained the agency’s policy to community leaders. She also said articles in the Denver Post and the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel may have been misleading by making it sound like the agency has already decided to change its policy on the race.

‘I was really surprised and confused by the info in the news release … It doesn’t clearly define the process that’s about to happen at Colorado National Monument. It talks about event planning … If you want to turn the parks into event centers, there’s no reason for them,” she said. “You don’t need to invoke a long, costly bureaucratic process with NEPA to evaluate any of the many permit requests or event proposals. The policies and laws and guidelines already exist to help the agency and superintendents to make these decisions.”

“I think there has been a representation in this case, that they’ve operated ambiguously,” said David Nimkin, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association. The case in point was that there was a marathon that was held within the park, that raised questions from the public perspective that the National Park Service was not being consistent,” he said.

But the decision to not allow the race is completely consistent with park service rules that are very clear and specific about what is permitted and what is not permitted, including fairly ironclad prohibitions on for-profit events, and the USA Pro Challenge is a commercial juggernaut.

Nimkin said he’s optimistic that in the best-case scenario, the upcoming EA process will help take any subjectivity out of the decision-making process so that when someone seeks a permit, the guidelines on what is acceptable will be even more clear than they are now.

I felt very strongly that Joan did the right thing,” Nimkin said, adding this organization gave her the Mather Award, for demonstrating enormous courage and dedication in protecting the agency’s core values.

“I hope it’s not  just a way to find a path to buckle. I hope it’s about educating the public as to what their concerns are,” he said.

Anzelmo said she’s not so sanguine about the process.

“The planning process is a means to and end that seems to have been dictated behind closed doors. I know the players and the political pressures extremely well. There was always transparency in everything we did during my tenure, as well as proactive media outreach and constant community engagement with very positive results until I made the decision on the race,” she said.

The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees is also watching carefully and with some concerns, said Rick Smith, former chair of the group, and a former NPS superintendent at the Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns national parks.

“Our policies are very clear that there has to be some kind of association between the event and the park,” Smith said, explaining that the agency’s most recent set of management rules were adopted just a few years ago, after extensive public process, including 45,000 public comments.

Those rules say special events may be permitted  “when there is a meaningful association between the park area and the event” and “when the event will contribute to visitor understanding of the park area.”

Federal law also requires the park service to deny permits for events that are “conducted primarily for the material or financial benefit of a for-profit entity; or awards participants an appearance fee or prizes of more than nominal value … “

Smith said the Pro Challenge fails all those conditions, and that he’s puzzled by the stance of Sen. Mark Udall, who enjoys a reputation as a public lands advocate. As chair of the national parks subcommittee in the Senate, Udall should understand better than the other political players how the bike race would conflict with the agency’s mission.

“This idea of holding public meetings to get input is an OK strategy as long as one doesn’t violate policy … if it’s to get people together to talk about what kind of events are appropriate.

“The current director has said no, the regional director has said no to the bike race. I can’t imagine them reversing their decisions,” he concluded. The group outlined its concerns with previous race proposals here.

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