Colorado Sand Dunes to Become Newest National Park

Colorado became home to the country's newest national park when Interior Secretary Gale Norton officially reclassified the Great Sand Dunes National Monument.

DENVER — Colorado became home to the country's newest national park when Interior Secretary Gale Norton officially reclassified the Great Sand Dunes National Monument.

Norton joined Rep. Scott McInnis and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell in a ceremony Monday at the dunes to designate the southern Colorado site a national park. McInnis, Campbell, and fellow Republican Sen. Wayne Allard sponsored legislation and lobbied to have the 750-foot dunes, North America's tallest; the surrounding mountains; and the sagebrush-dotted high desert turned into a national park.

The dunes hug the bottom of the snowy Sangre de Cristo Mountains that tower over the San Luis Valley. The landscape changes from 8,200-foot-high grasslands, to the dunes, to 13,000-plus-foot mountains and alpine lakes” Ã³” all within four miles.

The area is home to seven species” Ã³” six insects and a mouse — not found anywhere else in the world. The wildlife includes deer, elk, foxes, coyotes, mountain lions, and bighorn sheep.

Underground is the water that anchors the dunes and sustains the agricultural economy of the valley, which receives less than 10 inches of precipitation a year.


The water helped shape the dunes, cradled in a crescent at the foot of the mountains as a result of snow-fed creeks flowing across the sand. The dunes' foundation was laid about 25 million years ago through erosion of the San Juan Mountains.

The sand dunes were declared a national monument in 1932 by President Herbert Hoover. The protectecd” area expanded to about 107,000 acres from 43,000 acres, with part managed by the National Park Service and part by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Monday's ceremony capped the congressional career of McInnis, who is retiring after seven terms in the House. He was first approached 13 years ago by area residents who wanted to see the monument become a national park.

While the idea for the park was around for a while, the legislation authorizing it moved through Congress in just one session, McInnis said.

Hobey Dixon of Alamosa, president of the citizens' group Friends of the Dunes, said a crowded public meeting at the monument in 1999 broke for about a half-hour while Allard; McInnis; Campbell; Attorney General Ken Salazar, a San Luis Valley native; and former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt walked out on the dunes and huddled.

"They threw their arms around each out there and came back to the visitor center and said, `Let's do it,'" Dixon recalled.

President Clinton signed the bill in November 2000 that authorized making the dunes a national park. It required the neighboring 97,000-acre Baca Ranch be acquired and attached to the park. The Nature Conservancy agreed to raise about $30 million for the ranch when Congress initially allocated only $6 million.

So far, Congress has paid a total of $27 million toward the ranch, said Charles Bedford, associate state director for the group's Colorado chapter. Other money has come from Great Outdoors Colorado, which uses state lottery money for parks and open space, the State Land Board, and foundations.

The conservancy and the federal government will own and run the ranch together until the title is transferred to the government. Bedford said he expects lingering legal disputes among the sellers over their shares of the money to be settled soon.

The Nature Conservancy got involved with the sand dunes and ranch, about 160 miles south of Denver, because of the area's unique ecosystem and the community's push to preserve it for its recreation and environmental values.

"Our scientists have been fascinated with the place," Bedford said. "From a scientific perspective, it was known it was a unique, special place in Colorado, in the West — really in the world."

Source: Associated Press