Newest U.S. National Park Blocked by Legal Dispute

David Hosansky
for National Geographic News
June 12, 2001
The spectacular site in south-central Colorado that has been designated
as America's newest national park is facing an uncertain future.

The area's towering sand dunes, which soar as high as 700 feet (213 meters), have been a national monument since 1932. Last year, Congress passed legislation creating Great Sand Dunes National Park.

But the deal is contingent on the purchase of an adjacent 100,000-acre (40,500-hectare) ranch, which has been stalled by a legal battle.

"I still remain optimistic that it's going to come together," said Steve Chaney, the supervisor of the monument. "But the time frame is getting a little bit dubious."

The sand dunes in the geologically unique area, which were created at the foot of the snowy Sangre de Cristo mountain range, are the nation's highest.

The almost surrealistic setting—a hint of the Sahara Desert within the rugged Rockies—enables visitors to hike from semi-arid grasslands to alpine lakes at heights of up to 13,000 feet (4,000 meters), with a good chance of spotting such wildlife as elk, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions along the way. At least seven of the area's species—six insects and a mouse—are found nowhere else in the world.

Threatened Watershed

Determined to boost protection for the area, Senator Wayne Allard and Representative Scott McInnis of Colorado sponsored the bipartisan legislation last year to upgrade the 39,000-acre (15,800-hectare) Great Sand Dunes National Monument to a national park.

Once the upgraded designation is complete, the park will encompass about 100,000 acres (40,500 hectares), along with an adjoining Baca National Wildlife Refuge.

Former President Clinton signed the law in November amid expectations that the conversion of the site to a national park would be finalized within a few weeks. But the planned purchase of the 100,000-acre (40,500-hectare) Baca Ranch, which sits on top of aquifers that help sustain the dunes, has run into a roadblock because of a legal tussle between the ranch's owners.

The ranch's managing partner, Gary Boyce, wants to tap the enormous aquifers as a potentially lucrative water farm that could fuel the growing cities of Colorado's Front Range. San Francisco-based Farallon Inc., the venture capital firm that financed Boyce's purchase of the ranch, is ready to sell it. The dispute is in federal court.

The delay is creating some unease among Colorado environmentalists, who view the purchase of the ranch as critical in preserving the delicate ecosystem.

Although the dunes appear dry, they are actually damp beneath the surface. The countless grains of sand are stabilized by the adhesive effects of water that runs off the mountains and is linked with the aquifers.

If the water is piped out, as some developers have proposed, the dunes could be imperiled.

"The watershed is extremely important to sustain the natural sand cycling process," Chaney said.

Limited Protection

Assuming that Farallon wins the right to sell the land, the government still must come up with the approximately U.S. $32 million needed for the purchase, which is being brokered by The Nature Conservancy. The original legislation authorized $8.5 million, and the Bush administration proposed another $2 million in this year's budget.

McInnis wants Congress to appropriate the remaining money this year, although it remains unclear whether the court case will be resolved any time soon.

In the meantime, the sand dunes remain a national monument—a designation that does not offer as much environmental protection as national park status.

"Once the legal issues are settled, we're going to move full-speed ahead," said Josh Penry, a spokesman for McInnis. "This is a crown jewel—100,000 acres (40,500 hectares) of incredibly diverse country. It's hard to imagine a more important land acquisition for the federal government anywhere in the country."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.