Standing at the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, one will encounter an unforgettable experience. A steady breeze meets the face, rising from between the vertical walls descending as much as 2,700 feet, as the Gunnison River quietly churns below. Raptors glide on the wind coming up from the fissure, seemingly undisturbed by the currents. The force of nature of the Black Canyon is palatable as one views the striated lines painted into the cliffs which tower over the water stretching 14 miles through the national park.
This month marks 20 years since the park’s designation.
Years in the making
The Black Canyon — located west of Gunnison and northeast of Montrose — first was designated as a national monument in 1933 by President Herbert H. Hoover.
A national monument is land or a historical place which is protected by an act of Congress or by the president through the Antiquities Act of 1906. While a monument designation offers protection primarily to historic landmarks and structures, existing uses such as valid mining claims, livestock grazing and oil and gas leases are permitted.
A growing desire to elevate the Black Canyon’s status to a national park led former Congressman Ben Nighthorse Campbell to begin drafting legislation to expand the monument and designate it as a national park.
National parks are typically larger in size and are protected for their scenic beauty and natural resources, among other reasons. Nighthorse Campbell told the Times he was concerned about a developer buying up large plots near the monument.
For the next 15 years — during which he went from a Democrat to a Republican and from the House of Representatives to the Senate — Nighthorse Campbell worked with stakeholders for agreement on bill language.
“It was a long time coming,” said Nighthorse Campbell. “We were hearing from everyone about what they wanted in the language. ... There was a lot of pulling back and forth on water use and other things and that’s what took it so long.”
Nighthorse Campbell partnered with former Congressman Scott McInnis to push the legislation through.
“We were the quarterbacks, but it took a big team effort to get it to the goal line,” said McInnis, who currently serves as a Mesa County Commissioner. “Ninety-five percent of it was the community — the chamber of commerce, the farmers and ranchers and the water users, the City of Montrose, the environmental community … that was all able to come together.”
On Oct. 21, 1999, President Bill Clinton signed legislation redesignating the monument as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River National Park.
Celebration followed for two days with parades the next spring.
“We had a ribbon cutting,” said Nighthorse Campbell. “I remember it was a big thrill for us, particularly our family.”
McInnis, who said there couldn’t be a finer partner on the legislation than Nighthorse Campbell, called the legislation a key achievement of their service.
“There’s immense pride,” McInnis said.
Two decades and beyond
In the first two decades as a national park, the Black Canyon has grown in both features and programming. New exhibits and staff have been added, along with winter recreational activities and astronomy festivals.
In 2015, the International Dark Sky Association made the Black Canyon one of the first International Dark Sky Parks. In the last four years, more than 2,500 acres have been added through private donations and funds contributed by the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
In 2018, the nonprofit organization Friends of the Black Canyon was formed “to provide the mechanism for anyone to become a friend of our special national park through membership, projects, and donations,” the group’s website states.
McInnis noted the economic boost to the area that surrounds the park.
“Visitation goes up and down, but (we’ll) always have a national park right there,” McInnis said.
Park Superintendent Bruce Noble noted the growth in visitation — a 50 percent increase — since the Black Canyon became a national park, though national park designation doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in funding. Still, more visitors mean more entrance fees which can make a difference.
“There’s definitely something about having the national park label connected to the name of an area to put it on the radar screen for people,” Noble said. “It makes a huge difference as far as international visitors. They know America by its national parks. They flock to national parks and are more aware of them than a national monument or recreation areas.”
With deferred maintenance becoming more of an issue on public lands, Noble said a development concept plan is being proposed for the Black Canyon. Such a plan would serve as a roadmap to request funding for infrastructure projects.
He said office space, parking, seasonal housing, roads and family-friendly trails all are identified needs at the Black Canyon. He also would like to see a water source provided at both the South and North rims of the canyon, rather than having water trucked in from Montrose.
Yet, Noble said he would like to see some of the Black Canyon’s character remain.
“What I would hope as the next 20 years unfolds and the Black Canyon increases in popularity is that the North Rim doesn’t get too popular,” said Noble wistfully. “It’s almost a trip back in time with the dirt roads and the underdeveloped portion of the park like you would have found in the 1950s. It makes the North Rim interesting and unique. I would like to see some of that maintained.”
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org .)
BLACK CANYON 20TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
Join National Park Service for the following commemorative activities.
> Oct. 19-21 — Ranger Talks each day at Gunnison Point adjacent to the South Rim Visitor Center at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. They will last 20 minutes.
> Oct. 21 — Birthday cake will be cut and served at South Rim Visitor Center at 11 a.m.
TIMELINE OF EVENTS
1999 — Black Canyon becomes a national park.
2001 — New exhibits installed in the main hall at South Rim Visitor Center.
2003 — New staffing aimed at the professionalization of science is brought to Black Canyon.
2007 — New publications, including the Story Behind the Scenery are published.
2008 — The Bureau of Reclamation issues a water right decree for Black Canyon.
2009 — Permanent staffing in ranger ranks allows for year-round operations and new winter recreational activities.
2009 — 100th anniversary of the Gunnison Tunnel is marked with new exhibits and programs at East Portal.
2010 — The first Black Canyon Astronomy Festival is held starting an 11-year tradition.
2015 — The International Dark Sky Association establishes Black Canyon as one of the first International Dark Sky Parks.
2015 — Private philanthropist purchases 79 acres that prevents development of Signal Hill and donates the acreage to the park.
2017 — 2,494 acres of private land within the park boundary are added to the national park with funds contributed by the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
2018 — The Friends of Black Canyon is incorporated to support the national park.