Chimney Rock

National monument status is a welcome victory for people of Southwest Colorado

President Obama exercised his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 on Friday and made Chimney Rock a national monument. With that, the site can now get the national recognition and protection it deserves.

It was the right move, one that will directly benefit this area while broadening all Americans’ access to the rich cultural heritage of the American Southwest. The president’s decision was made all the more positive by grass-roots and bipartisan nature of the process leading up to it.

Chimney Rock is far more than an interesting geological formation. It is an important reminder of the Ancestral Puebloans’ culture and creativity. The acknowledgement of that implicit in the bestowing of monument status is another step toward seeing each related archeological site, not just as isolated gems, but as integral parts of a vast and seminal civilization.

The 4,726-acre Chimney Rock site in particular can offer insight into that ancient culture. As the president’s proclamation says, it “is one of the best recognized archaeoastronomical resources in North America. Virtually all building clusters have views of Chimney Rock and Companion Rock, which frame multiple astronomical alignments and illustrate the Ancestral Pueblo People’s knowledge of astronomy.”

Its meaning and importance, however, are not merely historical or archaeological. As the president said, “Today, descendents of the Ancestral Pueblo People return to this important place of cultural continuity to visit their ancestors and for other spiritual and traditional purposes. It is a living landscape that shapes those who visit it and brings people together across time.”

That can be true for non-Native visitors as well. It is not necessary to share an ethnic tie to derive meaning from the past. In fact, individuals from other cultures, other areas and other countries have much to gain from a greater understanding of this area’s past and the richness of pre-Columbian America. Seeing sites such as Chimney Rock, Mesa Verde, Canyons of the Ancients or Chaco as parts of a larger cultural tapestry brings their importance into sharper focus.

It also might put them on more people’s radar. The boost to tourism possible through the greater visibility conferred by monument status is not limited to more people, more rooms and meals, or more T-shirts sold. As welcome as those would be, a qualitative shift is possible as well. With travel centered on cultural values and interest in antiquities adding to the love visitors have always had for the scenery of the Southwest, interest in visiting the area can only expand – including to Europe, Asia and other parts of the Americas.

Perhaps best of all is how this came to be. President Obama signed the executive order making Chimney Rock a national monument, but he did so only after seeing a broad-based, bipartisan show of support for monument status.

Local governments, business groups, citizen activists and the National Trust for Historic Preservation all lined up behind the effort.

At the national level, a bill to make Chimney Rock a national monument was first introduced into the U.S. House by then-Rep. John Salazar, a Democrat. His successor, Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, wisely put partisanship aside, took up the cause and got the bill passed. Similar legislation was sponsored in the Senate by Colorado’s Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, both Democrats. That bill, however, was caught up in the general dysfunction of the Senate and went nowhere.

This is an election year, Colorado is a key swing state, and everything reflects on the election. But with the widespread backing evident for making Chimney Rock a national monument this cannot be dismissed as a political stunt on Obama’s part.

Instead, let’s just see it for what it is – a win for Southwest Colorado. And for that, thanks to all concerned.