A Q&A with former Colorado National Monument head Joan Anzelmo

  • Joan Anzelmo near the Grand Tetons, where she's retired after a 35-year career with the Park Service, including a recent stint as superintendent for Colorado National Monument.

    Bradly Boner

In 1976, fresh from the University of Maryland with degrees in French and Spanish, Joan Anzelmo began her National Park Service career greeting international tourists at the agency's new Visitor Center in Washington, D.C. But it wasn't long before the former "city girl" came out West, where she spent most of her 35-year tenure, including stints as a senior spokesperson for Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. She became the superintendent of Colorado National Monument in 2007.

Last winter, in that role, she resisted pressure from the "city fathers" in Grand Junction, Colo., to host a stage of the Quizno's Pro Cycling Challenge. The local paper demonized her, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall asked Anzelmo's superiors to override her decision and allow the race. Interior Department officials, however, backed her, and in October 2011, the National Parks Conservation Association recognized her efforts to protect the monument with a Stephen T. Mather Award.

Now retired to Jackson, Wyo., where she lives near her daughter, Anzelmo reflects on threats to our National Park System.

High Country News How did the race proposal affect the final year of your career?

Joan Anzelmo I wanted to be a good neighbor. I did evaluate their request very carefully, and I said no. They were pretty shocked. I saw their jaws drop.

In the end, the road would have been closed to everybody. If you're a visitor coming from far away to Colorado National Monument, you would have been denied entry. That's something we really don't do. At that time of year, you have bighorn sheep mating. You have golden eagles and peregrines that just fledged. The soil is a biological crust, and it really is the underpinning of the whole place. With the spectators jammed onto the sides of the road, there would have been damage. A mega sporting event is just not compatible with running a national park.

I had a few "random threat" kind of phone calls. I was a little worried about my safety. The university had just gotten approval to have a forensic body farm where they bury bodies. The running joke was if Anzelmo goes missing, look for her in Tim Foster's body farm. (Foster, the president of Colorado Mesa University, was a member of the local organizing committee for the race.)

It was the hardest set of experiences I ever had in those 35 years. I had been involved in some intense contentious issues. With bison management or the Yellowstone winter use plan, certainly people often disagreed with decisions the Park Service was making, but the majority of time there was respectful dialogue. It was very ugly how this was done.

HCN There was a cycling race in the monument in the 1980s. What's changed?

JA (In 2006) the director of the Park Service (Fran Mainella) wanted to add more protection to park resources. As we were coming into modern times, more and more was being requested of parks. The biggest policy revision was, in making a decision you have to err in favor of protecting the resource (rather than visitor experience).
And the fact that it happened in the '80s doesn't mean it could happen today. Requirements today for a professional race are helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes and lots of spectators and closing the road.

HCN Are you concerned about too many visitors loving the parks to death?

JA I don't think so. Everyone can't climb the Grand Teton on the same day, so you get your permit to overnight at the Lower Saddle. Everybody can't raft the Grand Canyon on the same day. There are capacity limits, for sure, but when you take the system across the country, there's room for everybody to have that national park experience.

What I do worry about is other commercial interests. With the race, whatever Colorado National Monument decided would set a precedent for all other units of the National Park System. If Secretary Salazar had overturned my decision, it would have opened up the parks to all kinds of other events that are not appropriate. I see statements about how an activity or event will "grow the economy" and "create jobs." National parks were not established for short-term economic gains. Otherwise there would be trophy homes all over the rim of the Grand Canyon and all along Yellowstone Lake.

HCN What are you up to now that you're retired?

JA On Nov. 7, I was reading the Denver Post and a story caught my eye: The BLM had issued a decision to allow the Over the River Christo art project on the Arkansas River. My eyes popped out of my head. I was like, "What?! We're going to build an infrastructure over two years for an art project for two weeks?" There will be 9,000 bolts nine feet long drilled into the riverbed to hold the infrastructure of cables and wires and 90-ton mobile drilling rigs and all this heavy equipment. I am just horrified that the BLM approved this project. I'm happy to be a dues-paying member and a volunteer now for ROAR, Rags Over the Arkansas River (a grassroots organization fighting the project). I would love to see the project stopped.

HCN And what do you do for fun?

JA I am a cyclist. I walk with a cane, and I can't hike any more. I have a degenerative joint disease, but I have a custom road bike. Ironically, cycling is one of the last things I can do that is active, and I love it. If those guys (in Grand Junction) only knew how tight I am with the bike guys here.

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