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Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Chimney Rock, at the Crossroads, Part Five
Bill Hudson | 5/18/12
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We obviously don’t have the funding to help [the federal government] build a visitors center [at Chimney Rock] — and we’ve never been asked to help; it’s never been mentioned to Archuleta County...

— Archuleta County commissioner Clifford Lucero, May 17, 2012

According to the reports I’ve been hearing coming from the Town Tourism Committee — in particular, from TTC chair Bob Hart and TTC executive director Jennie Green — Pagosa Springs’ reputation as a tourism destination is growing by leaps and bounds.  At the April 30 Town meeting, Mr. Hart addressed the Town Council and spoke glowingly of the TTC’s success in increasing tourism traffic to Pagosa.

“As most of you are aware, the Town Tourism Committee has had remarkable success over the past three years, increasing tourism traffic to Pagosa.  In fact, in the past year, TTC Lodging Tax revenues have hit nine all-time records. This has been occurring while surrounding towns and cities have seen declines in Lodging Tax revenues. To sustain this kind of growth, we must provide activities for people to do while visiting.

“Our record shows outstanding results in bringing visitors to Pagosa Springs.  However, our repeat visits could be much better. Also, once here, we must find ways to extend our tourist visits an additional day or two.”

Mr. Hart was making these statements last month in support of his ongoing effort to have the Town finance a number of amusement park rides on Reservoir Hill.  He’s made similar statements at numerous meetings over the past couple of years.

It’s quite clear that the Town Tourism Committee has collecting an ever-larger amount of Lodging Tax revenues over the past couple of years, and it’s also clear that Mr. Hart and his fellow TTC members would like to take credit for that increase.  Mr. Hart, in particular, is trying to spin that success — at collecting taxes — into justification for the Town to put its citizens maybe $5 million in debt to build his dream amusement park.

What Mr. Hart does not mention in these discussions are the events of 2002 and 2003.

Many of our readers will remember the summer of 2002. Historic drought conditions had left the San Juan Mountains with less than 10 percent of its typical snowpack.  (I could have used the term, “normal snowpack” but I didn’t.  I used the word “typical” instead.  We don’t, in my opinion, know whether ongoing climate change is in the process of setting new parameters for the word, “normal.”  Time will tell.)

The water in the San Juan River slowed to a trickle; you couldn’t ride an inner tube down the river, let alone a kayak. Then, on June 9, 2002, a wildfire started on Missionary Ridge in neighboring La Plata County — which was also suffering from the same dry, drought conditions.  Over the following weeks, the fire burned 75,000 acres — the second largest wildfire in Colorado history.  The air in Pagosa Springs was filled with a smoky haze; there were days when my eyes stung when I went outdoors.

Tourism had already begun a serious slump, following a recession that had begun in early 2001, and then the September 11 events at the World Trade Center in New York.  As a result of this triple whammy — a recession, September 11, and the Missionary Ridge Fire — tourism to Southwestern Colorado fell off significantly.  And because La Plata County and Archuleta County tourism industry employment is over twice the national average, measured by percentage of total employment, we suffered serious economic difficulties here in Pagosa during the summers of 2002 and 2003, due to a shortage of tourists.

I'd go so far as to suggest that Southwest Colorado is, 10 years later, still recovering from that tourist industry depression — and that the TTC’s positive Lodging Tax figures are partly a result of that recovery.  (Another aspect to the increased TTC tax collections is simply better bookkeeping by the TTC.)

Those economic troubles in 2002 and 2003 had nothing to do with any failures by the TTC, or with the absence of amusement parks on Reservoir Hill, or with the fact that Chimney Rock was a National Historic Site instead of a National Monument.  Tourism has its fickle patterns that normally follow the overall patterns in the U.S. and global economy — up, or down.  A report on Rocky Mountain area tourism, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas, suggests that the ups and downs of the tourist industry historically follow a very similar curve to America’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product.)  When times are good, tourism increases.  When times are bad, tourism drops off.
tourism pagosa springs colorado
We, as a community here in Archuleta County, are largely at the mercy of the national economy in regards to tourism.  But certainly, there are various ways to enhance the tourism experience. Some of those enhancements, of course, require money for construction and for operation.  Some are extremely affordable to build and maintain — families inner tubing in the San Juan River come to mind, and walks in the wilderness forest atop Reservoir Hill. 

Other potential enhancements would be extremely expensive to construct and operate. Too expensive, in some cases.

On Wednesday, Rep. Scott Tipton announced that the House of Representatives in Washington had approved his legislation, designating Chimney Rock — 20 miles west of Pagosa Springs — as a National Monument.  Rep. Tipton’s press release noted the failure of previous attempts to designate Chimney Rock, and suggested why this attempt may have succeeded:

Attempts in the previous Congress to pass similar legislation failed in part due to calls for spending increases; Tipton’s bill does not increase direct spending to achieve the designation. The Chimney Rock National Monument Establishment Act (H.R. 2621) now goes to the Senate, where Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) has introduced a similar measure.

As we have seen during the 112th Congress — over the past 16 months — the Democrat-controlled Senate has not always agreed with the Republican-controlled House.  In fact, they have hardly agreed on anything of any real importance.

And apparently, Chimney Rock is another example of those disagreements?  The bill recently introduced by Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, SB 508, which is supposed to be the companion to Rep. Tipton’s House-approved legislation, includes this simple little sentence — if you read to the very end of the bill:

There are authorized to be appropriated such sums as are necessary to carry out this Act.

Click here to download the full eight-page Senate bill.

What “sums” might those be, that Senators Udall and Bennet want authorized?  Ten dollars?  Ten million dollars? And what, exactly, would those “sums” be paying for?  The language in SB 508 is rather vague when it refers to the tasks The Secretary of Agriculture is expected to carry out.

The Secretary shall: (1) administer the national monument (A) in furtherance of the purposes for which the national monument was established; and (B) in accordance with (i) this Act; and (ii) any laws generally applicable to the National Forest System; and (2) allow only such uses of the national monument that the Secretary determines would further the purposes described in section 3(a)...

The bill gives The Secretary two short and very basic sentences to guide him, concerning what Senators Udall and Bennet mean by “furthering the purposes” of the Chimney Rock National Monument:

(1) to preserve, protect, and restore the archaeological, cultural, historic, geologic, hydrologic, natural, educational, and scenic resources of Chimney Rock and adjacent land; and

(2) to provide for public interpretation and recreation consistent with the protection of the resources described in paragraph (1).

And then, the bill authorizes him to spend “such sums as are necessary to carry out this Act.” 

As I understand the situation, if SB 508 were passed by the Senate, then a compromise would have to be forged between Rep. Tipton’s House version — which authorizes no federal expenditures for Chimney Rock — and Udall and Bennet’s Senate version — which apparently authorizes the Department of Agriculture to spend whatever “sums” the Secretary deems appropriate.

Most of the discussion I heard at the Chimney Rock meeting on Friday, May 11, centered around the great tourism potential — the supposed economic benefits to Archuleta County — of a National Monument designation. But so far, neither the Town of Pagosa Springs, nor the Town Tourism Committee, nor the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners, nor the Pagosa Springs Economic Development Corporation have stepped up to the plate and committed an ongoing source of funding to upgrade the operations of the Chimney Rock historical site.

Do we then want to ask our federal government to further increase our federal deficit — equal to about $1.3 trillion for 2012 — in a gamble for increased tourist traffic to Pagosa?

Or can we be happy with the much more modest increases in tourism that the TTC says they are bringing in, month after month, with their $350,000 annual budget?

Read Part Six...
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