Guest opinion: The importance of national parks like Great Sand Dunes Park and Preserve

Eighteen years ago, we Coloradans celebrated one of the greatest bipartisan successes for our state’s outdoor legacy — the moment the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act passed in Congress. I remember that day so vividly. I sat on the Zapata Ranch porch in the San Luis Valley (which coincidentally neighbors the newly-designated park) as I celebrated the victory with tens of other conservation groups. It was a meaningful moment for those organizations and the thousands of people who helped make it happen. People from all walks of life, including many that call southern Colorado home, celebrated the passage of this key legislation. That effort and celebration brought out the best in everyone.

Great Sand Dunes National Park has since become a sustainable economic anchor — creating over 400 jobs and bringing a cumulative impact to the San Luis Valley region of more than $36 million per year. The Park estimates that more than half a million visitors will come during the 2018 season. That historic conservation effort (and the steady stream of revenue our communities have experienced since) could be taken at the drop of a pin if oil and gas has their way with lands just outside park boundaries.

Under Interior Secretary Zinke’s leadership, the Bureau of Land Management wants to open land adjacent to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness to drilling, mining and fracking

The park’s designation focused on the fact that the Sand Dunes represent a unique landscape that is constantly changing under the midst of a present day, active geologic dynamic. The formation of the Great Sand Dunes is possible because of a complex set of naturally-occurring elements and interrelationships — wind, land, water — which concentrate in that specific area to form the wavy shape and complexity of the dunes. The balance of that environment is so precious that it is outright illogical to subject the area to oil and gas drilling. It’s clear little to no account was taken to the way this landscape survives and its fragility as an ecosystem.

The Sangre de Cristo Mountains that appear in the Dunes backdrop play an important role within that dynamic. That’s why Congress had the foresight to designate them as Wilderness in 1992. That wilderness, ecosystem vulnerability and natural beauty don’t mix with fossil fuel development.

Nominating oil and gas leases near parks and monuments across the country, the current trend under Zinke’s direction, will have large-scale environmental impacts. On the ground, pollutive ozone will increase while air and water quality decline. There will be severe wildlife migration interruptions and even displacement.

In the case of the Great Sand Dunes, where oil and gas is slated just miles outside of the protected boundary, the harm will certainly be far-reaching and detrimental. Two of these nominated parcels are right up against designated wilderness, others are within a mile of the Great Sand Dunes National Park boundary. Right now, those nominated parcels have been deferred by BLM due to the need for follow up consultation with the Navajo Nation. But that’s just a temporary delay. The Sand Dunes need to be completely withdrawn from oil and gas consideration.

Large contiguous areas of uninterrupted landscapes surrounding designated wilderness, parks and monuments are essential to maintain watersheds and wildlife corridors. They also provide essential peace of mind to many Americans everywhere.

The real issue, on top of incredible disrespect of our natural resources, is that temperatures are rising because we are burning fossil fuels. Once we burn oil or gas, it’s gone, but the effects on our landscapes and planet cannot be reversed. Fracking for oil and gas in the Great Sand Dunes would make a crisis even worse.

This effort to drill places and leave them destroyed goes against the quality of life we’re all seeking as Americans and the future most of us would like to leave for their children and grandchildren. So many of us are privileged enough to embrace a national park nearby and along with it, a sustainable, consistent economy. We must keep those places free from the threat of drilling and the light, noise and construction pollution that goes along with it. We need to show more ingenuity and respect for our surroundings and environmental health and to get on board with real energy progress. Preserving public lands like the Dunes protects our country’s history, culture, economy, and our future.

Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, received congressional recognition from Congressman Scott McInnis regarding the passage of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve legislation Act of 2000.


More In Opinion