Tallest US dunes become newest park

The move Monday marks a growing trend in public-private efforts in the West toward land conservation.

The towering 750-foot sand dunes that rise above Colorado's arid San Luis Valley took more than a million years to form. These geological marvels - the tallest dunes in North America - on Monday formed the centerpiece of America's 58th national park, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

The Great Sand Dunes were reclassified as a national park from a national monument - and greatly expanded in size.

The opening marks not just the newest park to join the ranks of "crown jewels," such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, but also a pioneering effort by private groups and local community members to preserve a unique wilderness.

"It's remarkable that a diverse community here is now united in a cause," says Mark Burget, Colorado director for the Nature Conservancy. "We hope the example here can be taken to other places around the country and around the world."

The announcement Monday marks the culmination of a decade-long process. Although eligible for upgraded status since 2000, when President Bill Clinton signed a bill authorizing a national park at the dunes, the official status change hinged on acquisition of the neighboring 97,000-acre Baca Ranch. Last Friday, when purchase of the adjoining ranch was finalized, it cleared the way for the new park.

The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve includes more than 30 square miles of sand dunes, Serengeti-like grasslands, alpine forests thick with pinon and juniper, all surrounded by 14,000-foot mountain peaks."

"This place was called home by ancient peoples and is now a haven for wildlife and a wonder to modern day visitors," said Department of the Interior Secretary Gail Norton at the dedication ceremony Monday. "It is a natural sculpture worthy of permanent preservation."

While the National Park System has been recently criticized for its budget and staffing woes, the tone here is purely celebratory.

"This is an emotional day for the hundreds of people who poured their heart and soul into this 10-year conservation odyssey," says Steve McCormick, the Nature Conservancy's president and CEO. Purchase of the Baca Ranch was made possible thanks to an unusual private-public partnership between the conservancy and the federal government. The conservancy agreed to cover the $30 million-plus price tag for the ranch pending a $3.4 million appropriation from Congress.

When the federal government makes the final payment - expected next year - it will hold the 149,000-acre park free and clear.

The Nature Conservancy, which also owns the neighboring 100,000-acre Medano-Zapata Ranch, became involved in the crusade for gaining park status for the dunes after identifying the Baca Ranch lands as vital to the very existence of the dunes. Besides the property's rich network of wetland habitat, the underlying hydrology was determined to support the structure of the dunes, keeping them literally from blowing away in the wind.

The conservancy attributes the project's success to the dedication of a diverse, bipartisan coalition with the shared goal of protecting the alpine valley's scarce water and unspoiled land. "Environmentalists and ranchers have been working together here for over a decade. That is really unique in the Western United States," says Mr. Burget. "It's the most amazing thing I've been involved with in conservation."

The dunes themselves, glistening like gold in the midday sun, cover roughly 30 square miles of this valley, which lies nearly 8,000-feet above sea level. The landscape is home to a multitude of wildlife, including elk, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, foxes, deer, and numerous migratory birds. It also hosts eight kinds of insects and a species of mouse that are found nowhere else in the world.

The sand dunes, 160 miles south of Denver, currently attract 300,000 visitors annually. That number is now predicted to rise, giving a boost to the local tourist economy.

Beyond the regional benefits the park designation should bestow, Burget predicts that travelers won't be disappointed. "It's a spectacularly beautiful landscape. There are 14,000-foot snow-clad peaks, a dramatic valley floor, beautiful streams, great herds of elk, and wildlife like you would expect to see in Africa," he says. "It's emblematic of the Nature Conservancy's mission of the protection of the diversity of life on earth."

The park designation makes Great Sand Dunes the fourth national park in Colorado, joining Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

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