MONTROSE, COLO. — From an overlook on the south rim of the Black Canyon, high above a 2,700-foot gorge, a single sound permeates the crisp autumn air: the roar of the Gunnison River below, as it courses and tumbles through the towering, smoky-colored walls of this plunging canyon.
"It's absolutely beautiful," sighs Melinda Wingard, admiring the luminous glow the late sun casts on the mammoth rock walls. "I would love to bring my horses here to ride," says the Evergreen, Colo., resident, who is visiting the canyon for the first time.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison - a 53-mile-long geological wonder - is about to stake a claim to the title of official American beauty. When it becomes the 55th national park, probably sometime in the next week, this land will become the first to win that coveted designation in five years.
The move represents the culmination of a 15-year effort, guided by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) of Colorado and widely supported by locals, to confer national-park status on Colorado's Black Canyon.
Last week, Congress gave unanimous approval to legislation upgrading the Black Canyon from national monument to national park. The bill is now headed to the White House, where President Clinton is said to be eager to sign it.
The title of full-fledged park confers heightened standing on this take-your-breath-away testament to the power of nature, even if it does not mean a lot more money or greater environmental protection.
"This raises the stature of the Black Canyon from a stop-and-look category to something on the same level as Yosemite or Yellowstone or Mesa Verde - and the canyon is deserving of that," says David Perry, owner of the Country Lodge motel in Montrose, Colo., the nearest sign of civilization west of the new park. "It is awe-inspiring."
Until now, the roster of national parks had held steady in recent years, reflecting a slowdown in new designations from Congress. Joshua Tree and Death Valley, in California, and Saguaro in Arizona were all upgraded from federal monuments to national parks in 1994.
In fact, those national parks are the only three to have been authorized this decade. In the 1980s, 10 national parks were added - seven in Alaska. Black Canyon, established as a national monument in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, becomes Colorado's first new national park since 1915, when Rocky Mountain National Park was established.
At just over 30,000 acres, Black Canyon will be the third-smallest national park - falling in after Wind Cave in South Dakota (28,000 acres) and Hot Springs in Arkansas (5,500 acres). The Black Canyon bill also designates an adjoining 18,000-acre Bureau of Land Management parcel as protected wilderness.
Unlike establishing a national monument, which requires only the stroke of a presidential pen, it takes an act of Congress to create a national park. To be considered a candidate, a tract must possess "a wide range of resources, all of which have been determined to be nationally significant," says Rick Frost, spokesman for the National Park Service. Although it isn't necessary for a parcel to move up the ranks from monument to park, it often works that way. And generally, the land must already be federally owned.
At Black Canyon, that last detail had stalled previous efforts to create the new park. Under the approved bill, 10,000 acres of new land will be added to the monument's 21,000 acres, most owned by the federal government. But the legislation also authorizes the purchase of nearly 3,000 acres of privately owned land, and Congress is usually averse to doing that.
"In today's system, you typically have to create a park with existing federal land," says Sheridan Steele, Black Canyon superintendent. "It's much more difficult to do with private land."
In this case, however, the imminent threat of development propelled Congress to make an exception. Last year, a real estate company bought three 40-acre parcels above the canyon's rim, which are now being marketed as home sites. The risk of homes perched atop this unspoiled terrain was enough to spur action, many believe.
Black canyon is so named for the pre-Cambrian rock walls carved by the Gunnison River over some 2 million years. Throughout the day, shifting sunlight and the play of shadows cast dark hues on the steep canyon walls, which are formed of schist, gneiss, and bands of granite.
Current park visitation is about 200,000 annually. Located nearly two hours from the closest interstate, and at least five hours from Denver, happenstance doesn't lead many here. But the status change is likely to boost visitation considerably, Mr. Steele predicts.
"There is some confusion over what a national monument is," he says. "People come here and they wonder where the stone pillar is - they seem to expect the Washington Monument. But people understand what a national park is."
In Montrose, a town of 12,000, residents are optimistic that added tourism will bolster the agriculture-based economy. "It's really lifted the spirits of the community," says Mr. Perry from his lodge on Main Street.
Today at the Black Canyon, the foliage is awash with the blush of autumn, and Annelise Sterl, here from Vienna, Austria, is searching for the precise English words to capture her sentiments. "I find this more spectacular than the Grand Canyon," she exclaims. "In Grand Canyon, it's so far away, but this is so near. It's more dramatic to me. There's nothing like this in Austria."
Most recent US national parks
Black Canyon (Colorado), 1999
Joshua Tree (California), 1994
Saguaro (Arizona), 1994
Death Valley (California/Nevada), 1994
Great Basin (Nevada), 1986
Glacier Bay (Alaska), 1980
Gates of the Arctic (Alaska), 1980
Kobuk Valley (Alaska), 1980
Katmai (Alaska), 1980
Lake Clark (Alaska), 1980
Kenai Fjords (Alaska), 1980
Wrangell-St. Elias (Alaska), 1980
Biscayne (Florida), 1980
Channel Islands (California), 1980
Source: National Park Service
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society