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Black eye for Black Canyon By BOBBY MAGILL, The Daily SentinelWednesday, December 27, 2006BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON NATIONAL PARK Before the dams were built, the Gunnison River raged through Black Canyon each spring with such ferocity that it carved through the volcanic rock Colorado's deepest and most sheer abyss.More than 2,000 feet above the river on the south rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, there's no running water, no grand lodge inviting tourists to luxuriate, no concession stand feeding the masses.There is, however, a sense of remoteness and grandeur on the threshold of Colorado's deepest gorge. Overlooked by a rustic log cabin visitor center from which tourists peer into the chasm to the park's only permanent running water, the Gunnison River is barely visible from the canyon rim.Only a gravel road penetrates the park on its north rim, where Black Canyon's most adventurous visitors attempt to either scale its sheer walls or negotiate one of several narrow poison ivy-riddled talus slopes plummeting surefooted hikers to the river below."When you go to the north rim, it's sort of like going to a park back in the '50s," said former Black Canyon Superintendent Bill Wellman, who was promoted in mid-November to the superintendent's post at sprawling Big Bend National Park in Texas.Sixty-six years after President Herbert Hoover declared Black Canyon a national monument, Congress created Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in 1999, now the nation's fourth-newest national park senior only to a pair of eastern parks and Colorado's own Great Sand Dunes.Black Canyon National Park is a picture of vitality in defiance of trends afflicting the region's other parks suffering from the National Park Service's budget woes and shrinking masses coming to see their natural wonders.Visitation at Black Canyon has been on the rise the last three years, hitting 180,814 people in 2005, about half what it was three decades ago.The park's south rim is endowed with facilities built within the last 15 years, most of which are in good condition.Black Canyon's price tag for maintenance projects in need of completion is a mere $4.7 million a fraction of the cost of its neighbor parks' maintenance backlogs, which are as high as $63 million.The park could be rid of its maintenance backlog by 2010 because more than $1 million of maintenance projects are completed annually, Wellman said.The park isn't immune to the budget crunch, however, and has had to consolidate management staff with Curecanti National Recreation Area and Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument west of Colorado Springs for efficiency, he said.Down the riverOne of the park's greatest strengths, Wellman said, is the quality of the canyon it protects. Development near the park and the fate of water flows in the Gunnison River could change that, however.Black Canyon may be Colorado's most controversial national park not necessarily because of how it was created or how its government caretakers manage its formidable land, but because of the water in the Gunnison River, which not only imbues the canyon with life, but supplies water and electricity to thousands of people in central Colorado.During the spring floods, the Gunnison River sliced through the canyon at up to 20,000 cubic feet per second. So powerful was the Gunnison that it carved Black Canyon one inch deeper each year, creating a chasm 2,772 feet deep at its deepest and 40 feet wide at its narrowest.The river's annual wax and wane was the natural order of things until the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation disrupted the Gunnison's water flows. In 1976, the bureau completed the last of the three dams and reservoirs of the Aspinall Unit immediately upstream of the park. The unit is part of the Colorado River Storage Project under which Arizona's Glen Canyon, Utah's Flaming Gorge and New Mexico's Navajo dams were also built.With the completion of the Crystal Dam and its accompanying power plant, the bureau created on the Gunnison River a 40-mile swath of reservoirs and power plants that can produce more than 200 kilowatts of electricity and store over 1 million acre feet of water.But the amount of water released below the dams would forever change the ecology of the river through Black Canyon National Park.The dams eliminated the Gunnison River's natural hydrograph through the canyon, evening out flows during spring runoff, when the river should be raging with floodwater, said Ken Stahlnecker, chief of resource stewardship and science at Black Canyon. The gorge used to be the Gunnison's transition zone between warm water and cold water, but the dams cooled the river at the expense of native fish species."Now we see more of the trout species, rainbow and brown primarily, and it's quite a fishery down there now," he said.The natural hydrograph needs to be maintained because it's the signal for fish to spawn, and it flushes the river channel of debris, said Wendy McDermott, executive director of the High Country Citizens Alliance.But Wellman said the canyon can survive without a natural hydrograph, as long as it gets peak and lower "shoulder" flows each spring and a once-per-decade flood with flows of about 15,000 cubic feet per second."Our water right is not a consumptive right," Wellman said. "It doesn't take any water out of the river system."But a 2003 agreement between the National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Interior and the State of Colorado threatened to starve the canyon of its flows, reducing it to a year-round minimum of 300 cubic feet per second.To maintain the vitality of the Gunnison River through Black Canyon, water would ideally need to flow at a volume well above 300 cubic feet per second, especially during spring runoff when the river naturally runs highest, Stahlnecker said.The agreement relinquished Black Canyon National Park's water right to peak and shoulder flows during the spring, a right dating to 1933 when President Hoover declared Black Canyon a national monument.The agreement was "nonsensical," said U.S. District Court Judge Clarence A. Brimmer in his September decision to set aside the pact. The National Park Service ignored the needs of the public in a decision that would profoundly effect the canyon's ecology and human environment, he wrote.He declared that because Black Canyon is a wilderness area and a national park, the National Park Service must maintain enough water in the river to leave the canyon's ecology and scenic beauty unimpaired. The agreement, he said, protected the canyon's competitors and not the canyon itself.After being given until Dec. 18 the court granted a one month extension to the government's original deadline to appeal Brimmer's decision, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a notice of appeal that day, which preserves the government's right to file its appeal beyond the deadline.Cynthia Magnuson, spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Washington, said the appeal would likely be filed by the beginning of January.If its appeal fails, the federal government and the state will have to return to the table to forge a new agreement more friendly to the ecology of Black Canyon."We'd like to see an agreement that protects the resources of the park and protects current and future use of the water within the Gunnison Basin," said McDermott, whose group is a plaintiff in the case. Development loomsAs the canyon awaits the fate of its river, worries stir above its rim about how commercial and housing development on private property within and just outside park boundaries may one day become part of the landscape seen from Black Canyon's most popular viewpoints.There's no lodge at Black Canyon National Park not even flush toilets and that's just fine with Lynn and Ted Farr. In early November, they were in the middle of a trans-continental road trip from their home in Emmaus, Penn., when they decided to visit the park, which they discovered in a tourism brochure.The pair grew up in California, where car-clogged Yosemite served as their idea of a typical national park. But sparsely-visited Black Canyon, they said, should be different."They don't need a lodge in the park," Lynn Farr said. "Yosemite kind of set a standard. I don't think (this) park needs all of (those) facilities."Where the Farrs see an ideal national park, real estate speculator Tom Chapman sees a business opportunity.Owner of a 112-acre private inholding subdivided into three 37 acre parcels just south of Black Canyon's campground and within the park boundaries, Chapman is advertising his land as a rare opportunity for a savvy developer who wants to take advantage of doing business within a relatively undeveloped national park. One house has already been built on the land."These private parcels stand alone as being the only place where one can own a business or a luxury home within the U.S. National Park system," Chapman says in his online ad for the land. "Anchored on a high hill, the building site on Parcel No. 2 reigns supreme over the entire park and is an excellent candidate for a national park lodge or a luxury estate."The ad trumpets the other parcel, on the East Portal Road which leads to a dam at the bottom of the canyon, as a great spot for a fast food joint.Development on those inholdings would "potentially create homesites near the peak of Signal Hill, which would be visible from a lot of the overlooks from the roads within the park," and would sully the darkness of the park's night skies, Black Canyon National Park Management Assistant Dave Roberts said."The Park Service would rather see the area remain essentially rural and undeveloped," he said. "We've made attempts to acquire that land in the past, but we're not anywhere close on price."Chapman is notorious among conservationists who criticize him for buying cheap private property within wilderness areas and national parks and selling it for millions.On his Web site, Chapman is advertising a package of 19 inholdings all sold within Colorado's Weminuche, Holy Cross, Fossil Ridge, Spanish Peaks and Uncompahgre wilderness areas, where buyers could develop within a federally protected wildland.Chapman's Black Canyon ad says the property is priceless and is currently off the market. As a representative of TDX, LP, he purchased the 112 acres in 1998 for $80,000, and pays only $45 in property taxes annually for the land's $3,100 agricultural production value, according to Montrose County records.He's selling a nearby 1,700 acre ranch "targeted for inclusion in the Black Canyon National Park" for $10 million.Chapman couldn't be reached for comment, but Roberts said the park's hopes of trying to buy the property is fading because the National Park Service has no money to spend on acquiring land."Our other concern is Grizzly Ridge," Wellman said.The finger of private property on the ridge directly across Black Canyon from the visitor center was subdivided in 2004, and is "cherry stemmed" into the park, he said."That would be more intrusive than (TDX's) current house," he said.The park is trying to either acquire that property or ask the owner to put it under a conservation easement to preserve the views in the park.In coping with outside development that could be within view of the park, Wellman said park officials know that it's the grandeur and quality of the canyon that draws people to the park.And that's worth protecting, he said: "One of our objectives should be not to screw up what's really nice."Bobby Magill can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
Black eye for Black Canyon The natural hydrograph needs to be maintained because it's the signal for fish to spawn, and it flushes the river channel of debris, said Wendy McDermott, executive director of the High Country Citizens Alliance.But Wellman said the canyon can survive without a natural hydrograph, as long as it gets peak and lower "shoulder" flows each spring and a once-per-decade flood with flows of about 15,000 cubic feet per second.
But a 2003 agreement between the National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Interior and the State of Colorado threatened to starve the canyon of its flows, reducing it to a year-round minimum of 300 cubic feet per second.The agreement relinquished Black Canyon National Park's water right to peak and shoulder flows during the spring, a right dating to 1933 when President Hoover declared Black Canyon a national monument.The agreement was "nonsensical," said U.S. District Court Judge Clarence A. Brimmer in his September decision to set aside the pact. The National Park Service ignored the needs of the public in a decision that would profoundly effect the canyon's ecology and human environment, he wrote.
"We'd like to see an agreement that protects the resources of the park and protects current and future use of the water within the Gunnison Basin," said McDermott, whose group is a plaintiff in the case.
[Wellman] said: "One of our objectives should be not to screw up what's really nice."
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