Vast piles of mysterious-looking, oversized rock formations await the hiker who reaches the place Chiricahua Apache Indians named “Land of Standing Up Rocks,” a place that’s better known today as Chiricahua National Monument.
Gnarled cypress and fresh-scented pine weave through these rocks that seem to come alive when the play of light and shadow is just right. Thick, thin, bulky, oblong, leaning this way or that – the towering columns, spires, and balanced rocks, some rising hundreds of feet into the air, were essentially planted and welded together, beginning 27 million years ago after a volcanic explosion in southeastern Arizona. Subsequent eruptions filled a depression 12 miles in diameter atop this isolated sky island. The contents of that caldera, or volcanic crater, altered by additional earth movement, were sculpted over time by wind and rain. All of nature’s work left behind massive columns of fossilized volcanic rock called rhyolite tuff, which appear to be standing upright.
Along the 17 miles of trails that wind through this 12,000-acre natural masterpiece, hikers pass grassy meadows with patches of agave, cactus, creosote, mesquite, and chaparral. Prevalent is the indigenous Yucca elata – the palm-like soaptree, its creamy white flower-stalk rising out of its center. Visitors picnicking under the oak woodlands are likely to be watched by a team of blue- and gray-feathered bodies resting on branches, waiting for a few crumbs. Called the Mexican jay, the birds travel en masse. Mexican piñon, alligator juniper, and Arizona sycamore trees also cut through this forest of dust-colored hoodoos, many of which are layered in lichen.
Surrounded by the Coronado National Forest in Arizona’s Cochise County, the hoodoos are the centerpiece of this ecological and geographical marvel. Yet, from numbers recorded in the last three years, few come to see it. The monument is visited by an average of just 48,000 people each year. The number has dropped from its peak in the 1990s, when visitation reached 100,000, says Suzanne Moody, acting chief of interpretation for NPS’s southeastern Arizona region.
The trails through the monument require adventurous hikers to duck around outcroppings, traipse through natural tunnels, and stand on cliff edges. The hoodoos seem almost acrobatic – many seem dangerously close to toppling over. It’s amazing that they don’t. They tower overhead, appearing to converse with each other. The calls and whistles of the hundreds of species of birds that live here, flying in and out of the vast wilderness area, could just be the tall totems conversing. Plant and animal life is greatly diverse here at the intersection of four different biomes: the Sonoran Desert to the west, the Rocky Mountains in the north, the Chihauhaun Desert to the east, and Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountain range in the south.
Chiricahua has a rich history worth exploring. From nomadic Paleo-Indians 10,000 years ago to Chiricahua Apache raiders who arrived about the same time as the Spaniards, the land has long been settled. Buffalo Soldiers camped here during the Civil War. Fort Bowie, a US Army outpost, was established nearby in the late 1800s. The famous Apache leader Geronimo lived here before being forcibly removed. Historic Faraway Ranch, once a popular guest ranch in Bonita Canyon, is now a part of the monument. In fact, its three generations of homesteaders are part of the reason the monument exists at all. Even the Civil Conservation Corps made its New Deal mark on the monument, constructing roads, buildings, and trails that still exist today.
Yet now, in spite of this deep history, “it’s really an undiscovered place,” says Moody.
That may be about to change.
The pioneers who referred to Chiricahua as the “Wonderland of Rocks” in the late 1880s were the first to gather a group of like-minded individuals throughout the region to write letters on behalf of the land. They convinced President Calvin Coolidge to protect and preserve the wonderland by declaring it a monument. When he did in 1924, they saw it as an opportunity to capitalize on tourism.
Likewise, a modern-day group of pioneers are looking for an opportunity to capitalize on this stunning region by having it designated a national park. But this battle is a bit more complicated. Though national monuments can be designated with a stroke of the president’s pen, national park status requires congressional action.
The idea of turning Chiricahua into a national park came to Robert “Bob” Gent a little more than a year ago. The 68-year-old retired US Air Force officer has been hiking in the Chiricahuas since he was a child and is a volunteer on tourism boards in the nearby city of Sierra Vista, the main cultural and recreational hub of Cochise County. The concept began as a simple question at a board meeting.
“We were talking about things we could do to attract visitors to Cochise County,” Gent says. He was seated next to the region’s National Park Service superintendent at the time. “At the end of the meeting I turned to her and asked, ‘Why couldn’t we make Chiricahua a national park?’”
According to Gent, the NPS superintendent thought it sounded like a great way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Park Service. So did other folks who overheard the conversation.
Of course, Gent had immediate questions: What would the new designation mean in terms of staffing, changes to the park, and park boundaries? But the superintendent assured him: “We could do it ‘as is.’ It would only require a name change.”
Eureka! The Campaign for Chiricahua National Park was born, a Facebook page went up, and what campaigners soon began to see as the “long and slow process” of transforming a national monument into a national park began. Campaign volunteers began soliciting congressional support using a decidedly positive hook: Chiricahua could be the 60th national park in the country, and one that was declared in 2016, the centennial year of the NPS.
The campaign is based on the idea that national park status carries with it a cachet that monument status does not. Gent has studied the stats: Two-thirds more people visit the country’s 59 national parks than do the 121 national monuments. In Arizona, the 2015 monetary piece of the national park pie comes to $682 million. That’s how much money visitors spent visiting the state’s three existing national parks: Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, and Saguaro. All three were formerly national monuments. Chiricahua brought in only $3 million last year.
Supporters of the designation change say this status boost could open economic doors – through tourism – for struggling communities in southeastern Arizona as well as southwestern New Mexico (Chiricahua lies close to the Arizona-New Mexico border). Increasing tourism would help small businesses and grow the local economy. The logic goes: More people coming to town means more people spending money in town.
Local business owners and leaders have quickly embraced the idea. Mary Tieman, executive director of Sierra Vista Area Chamber of Commerce and chair of the Sierra Vista Tourism Commission, wrote the first letter in support of national park designation. She sent copies to US Congresswoman Martha McSally based in Tucson, and to US Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain.
Then the team waited for a response. And waited. And waited.
Meanwhile, other local chambers of commerce wrote letters, neighboring city councils passed resolutions, and boards of supervisors did the same.
Alan Baker, executive director of Willcox Chamber of Commerce & Agriculture, was another early supporter of the idea. The City of Willcox, which markets itself as the “Gateway to the Chiricahuas,” is the closest city to the national monument. Baker hopes the designation change will bring life back to his city, popularly known as the birthplace of Rex Allen, the late singer-actor who was known as “the Arizona Cowboy” and as the narrator of many Disney nature and Western productions. Willcox also home to cattle ranches, orchards, vineyards, at least 10 wine-tasting rooms, and it offers plenty of birding opportunities to boot.
Brenda Haas, general manager of the Holiday Inn Express in Willcox, is also a proponent of the plan. “I didn’t realize there was more value in having a national park attraction,” she says. Many of her guests come to visit the monument. She’s a fan, too. “It’s more than a park,” she says, “It should be an eighth wonder.”
Amanda Baillee, former executive director of the Sierra Vista Chamber of Commerce, is on the Tourism Commission with Gent. She set up the Facebook page that helped garner more publicity for the campaign. “Everyone here was on board immediately,” she says, explaining how Sierra Vista’s economy has been hurt by sequestration at Fort Huachuca, the city’s largest employer. “Surrounded by beautiful scenery, we’re a hidden gem down here. So we’re trying to move more toward tourism to help our economy grow.”
Tireless in his efforts, Gent, a tall man of medium build, enunciates carefully when he speaks, and has PowerPoint slide presentations of various lengths ready to go. If you have just two minutes to spare, he’ll email one, or if you have more time, he’ll offer to make a presentation. As he speaks, his passion ignites, his voice rising in volume, picking up speed. He emphasizes his thoughts with a hand movement or two. He really wants this.
“No land-use changes. No additional staffing. No budget increase. The site is already managed by the National Park Service. We’re just asking for a name change,” he says.
It’s been more than a year, and Gent has not yet heard back from Senator Flake. The only written dissenter is Senator McCain, who cited in a letter his fear that border cities are too dangerous for tourists.
Congresswoman McSally from Tucson, a retired Air Force officer herself, has shown the most interest. She eventually inquired about the campaign and then visited Chiricahua in October 2015. Her response, says Gent, was that a national park designation would be “a win-win for Arizona.” Gent was thrilled. McSally promised to write legislation early this year but hasn’t yet. Gent says she may need to see more congressional support first.
Though the effort hasn’t spurred much political action yet, it has garnered regional news articles, op-eds, and network news broadcasts. So far, proponents say, none of the local organizations they’ve spoken with have come out against the idea. Now the campaign is targeting New Mexico to build additional support. If all goes according to hope, park status would come to the Chiricahuas before the fast-approaching centennial celebration in August.
Given the current climate in Congress, time constraints, and recent dust-ups over public lands, that may be a stretch. But even if it doesn’t happen this year, enough people want to see this happen, so the campaign moves forward.
Jackie Dishner, author of Backroads & Byways of Arizona, writes from Phoenix.
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