An effort to protect Southeast Colorado's heritage is turning into a battle over property rights, and whether Southeast Colorado is a tourist destination.
The idea of turning six counties in Southeast Colorado into National Heritage Areas has sparked a fierce debate in as to whether the status would infringe on private property rights of individuals, or serve the area by promoting tourism and therefore the economy.
An NHA is an area designated by Congress as a place where “natural, cultural and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape,” according to the NHA website. NHAs are supposed to work with the communities they cover to promote heritage conservation and economic development. NHAs receive federal grant money that must be matched dollar for dollar.
The grant money would be used for local projects, and run through a local non-profit organization, which in the case of Southeastern Colorado would be Canyons and Plains, a heritage-tourism organization that has been serving the counties of Crowley, Kiowa, Otero, Bent, Prowers, Baca and east Las Animas for more than 10 years.
Although the NHA program is administered by National Park Service coordinators in seven regional offices around the country, an NHA is not interchangeable with a national park.
“Heritage areas are different from national parks because national parks attempt to freeze a moment in time, whereas heritage areas attempt to preserve a way of life,” said Greg Kendrick, National Heritage Areas Coordinator for the Intermountain Regional Office.
For an NHA to be created, a feasibility study must first be completed by a non-profit group, Kendrick said. Once that has been approved, a member of the U.S. Congress must be asked to sponsor legislation to turn the area into an NHA.
A feasibility study has not been begun yet, much less has legislation been written, yet the opposition to the very idea of an NHA has been active since January.
The tension stems from the fact that NHAs are what the website refers to as “lived-in landscapes.” In other words, they overlap with private properties such as ranches and farms, and many people fear that their private property rights are in jeopardy.
Petitions against the NHAs have been passed around in every one of the counties that might be affected: Crowley, Kiowa, Otero, Bent, Prowers and Baca. County commissioners from all the counties except Otero and Crowley have passed resolutions saying they do not support NHAs in their counties.
Crowley County has passed a resolution saying it will not support NHAs if there is any wording in the bill that would allow infringement on private property rights, but has not committed to opposing it altogether.
Although passing these resolutions does not necessarily prevent an NHA, it hinders the process.
“You definitely want local governments to be supportive of NHAs. So it doesn’t bode well it they preemptively say they don’t support an NHA,” said Rick Manzanares , executive director of Canyons and Plains.
The local governments are not alone in opposing the idea. An entire organization was formed in January to oppose the formation of an NHA in the area. The Southeast Colorado Private Property Rights Council is made up of concerned citizens who are not in favor of bringing NHAs to the region, or anything else that threatens their private property rights, said Kimmi Lewis, one of the SCPPRC’s founders.
Lewis has been ranching in the area between Kim and La Junta for her whole life. She has devoted time and energy to preserving private property rights since 2000, and was active in opposing the expansion of the Pinon Canon maneuver site.
“We do not like the federal government having any kind of control over us,” Lewis said. “That’s why we live out here. I like where I live, and I don’t want it changed.”
The group has held informational meetings in all six of the counties concerned, telling people about what they see as the dangers of labeling their property as NHA. The meetings began in January, and have had a large response with more than 200 people coming to the meeting in Prowers County, and two meetings had to be held in Eads because the building wasn’t big enough to hold all the people who attended.
Their main concern is the affect a NHA would have on private property rights. Norman Kincaide was a member of the organization Canyons and Plains, the non-profit based in Rocky Ford that originally got the NHA discussion on the table. When Canyons and Plains started pushing for an NHA, he ended his membership with them and became actively involved in the SCPPRC.
Kincaide has researched NHAs extensively, and cites examples of other NHAs that he said infringed on people’s rights, such as the Yuma Crossing NHA in Arizona.
“People outside of Yuma didn’t know about the NHA until the boundaries were being surveyed,” Kincaide said. “The surveyors came on to people’s property and used the NHA to change zoning laws. People had to go back to Congress to reduce the size of the NHA.”
Another concern raised by both Lewis and Kincaide was that of “view shed.”
One of the partners of Canyons and Plains, the Palmer Land Trust, released a color-coded map which labeled areas as high visibility, medium visibility, low visibility, and priority scenic view shed.
“That means this is how they view your private property,” Kincaide said. “They’re interested in how it looks, not in how you use your property.”
Kincaide and Lewis both said making private land into a NHA could affect what landowners are allowed to build on their own land.
But those in favor of the NHA designation say that not only is that unlikely to happen, it’s specifically prohibited in the letter of the law. Since 2009, every new heritage area created has been required to include language in the law that prohibits government infringement on private property.
The legislation which designated the Sangre De Cristo National Heritage Area reads in part: “Nothing in this section—(1) abridges the rights of any property owner (whether public or private), including the right to refrain from participating in any plan, project, program, or activity conducted within the Heritage Area; (2) requires any property owner to permit public access (including access by Federal, State, or local agencies) to the property of the property owner, or to modify public access or use of property of the property owner under any other Federal, State, or local law.”
“As you can see, there is no goal or even unintentional way for us to infringe on people’s private property rights,” Manzanares said. “I understand the fear, but there is no credible instance that they’ve been able to come up with. They mention things like Yuma crossing, but they are specific controversies that have been worked out.”
The specific wording in the legislation doesn’t change the minds of those who oppose it. They have other reasons for not wanting an NHA to cover their region.
“People around here don’t want another layer of government,” Kincaide said. “This tourism welfare is a frivolous expense. What Canyons and Plains would do through NHAs is already being done through local museums, websites and associations.”
Kincaide said that even if the NHA designation would bring money to the area, Southeastern Colorado would still not be able to compete with other areas of the state such as the four corners region.
“The opportunities for tourism here are such that I do not see it (an NHA) benefitting the region,” Kincaide said. “When people come to places like Sand Creek and Boggsville, they say ‘Well that was nice, but there is nothing to do here.’ I’m not buying that it will bring even 10 or 12 jobs into the region.”
Even if the NHA does bring jobs to the region, Kincaide said it’s the wrong kind of economic growth. Tourism is not what produces in Southeastern Colorado: farming and ranching is.
Manzanares disagrees. He said that the economic difference an NHA can bring may not be huge, because the resources will not be large, but the benefit will be there.
“NHAs are nationally advertised. It brings national attention to the entire region,” Manzanares said. “So it’s trying to bring economic development through heritage assets. The heritage area gives that much more visibility.”
The efforts of the SCPPRC have the power to halt the process of making the area an NHA, because Congress is unlikely to pass legislation unless there is strong local support.
“The feasibility study is made up of ten questions answered in an essay format,” Kendrick said. “But the only one Congress really cares about is the local support. That’s the one that gets their attention.”
Canyons and Plains held informational meetings in each of the six counties to discuss the benefits of bringing an NHA to the area and to try to gain local support for the idea.
“There has been a lot of controversy about the NHA and they (SCPPRC) are way out in front of us. I don’t know if this region is going to support a heritage area, but we are trying to put out the misinformation that’s been out there,” Manzanares said.