Frontier Area — GJ Freestanding


Grand Junction has an opportunity to create an entirely new type of park in the canyons along the Colorado-Utah border.  This would be a “frontier area” — an area managed so as to re-create a slice of the original western frontier, with its unique mix of wilderness and small, nonmodern towns.  Much of the land would remain wild, but the area would also contain a few new scattered towns and farming areas, built on the simple but far-reaching conditions that cars and electricity not be used.  This would result in a series of small nineteenth-century towns in an extended nineteenth-century frontier landscape.  The towns will provide convenient stepping-stones for back-country travel, and the valley as a whole will allow visitors to experience an entire way of life very different from the modern one.

The new park could begin near Mack and Loma where the Colorado first enters the canyons, would run along the next thirty-mile stretch of the river, and then could continue up the Dolores River to Gateway — resulting in a corridor a few miles wide and  seventy miles long.  The park itself, and the first few towns in it, could be accessed by steam train from Grand Junction; beyond that visitors would have to travel on their own power.  Most of the land would be preserved as wilderness or in isolated pockets of ranching and agriculture.  Along the valley, however, we would also establish a string of about eight small new towns, at intervals of five to ten miles, built in architectural styles to reflect the different periods in the area’s past.  A trip through all the towns would therefore be a trip back in time through the history of the Grand Junction region.

The need for this new kind of park can be seen in the stark contrast between the successful way that the Interior Department has managed the nation’s raw lands, and the way that we know so very little about what the daily life of all Americans in the years before modern technology.

Some parts of the pioneer West have been perfectly preserved. Great stretches of the natural world stand today as they did then, the redrock cliffs and the hidden springs preserved unchanged as wilderness and lovingly guarded by statute. This is the great triumph of wildlands preservation.

But the civilization, the human culture of this world has vanished oddly, inexplicably, without a trace. Some isolated buildings have been saved, of course, but the broader texture and feel of that age have been forgotten so thoroughly that we are no longer even aware that we have forgotten them. We no longer know how a town looked at night when it was lit only by kerosene lamps, or how neighbors interact when they have no television to help pass the time, or what it feels like to walk along the high road from one town to the next without having to keep some part of the mind alert for oncoming cars. And in this loss of memory lies the great missed opportunity of the historic preservation movement.

The new park would fill that gap.


Benefits all around

Creating this area would bring several advantages to the Grand Junction area and to the general parkgoing public:  (1) It would show history on a meaningful, landscape-wide scale.  (2) It would support a wide variety of outdoor activities.  (3) It would be a source of revenue and growth for the local economy.  (4) It would be consistent with local institutions and values.  (5) It would be practical in both engineering and political terms.
History on a grand scale

What makes the proposed new project unique is the element of scale. The historic valley would be built an order of magnitude larger than today’s historic zones, and this will make it interesting to visitors in three entirely new ways.

First of all, the historic zone will be big enough to create an alternative world  that the visitor can step into and experience as a whole.  It will become possible to stand without distraction in a place where only period-specific things meet the eye. Wildlands and historic buildings can then be seen with a sense for their true original significance. Today’s beautifully conserved buildings are all too often surrounded by tour busses, roads, and commercial development, and do not convey a sense of the context and environment they were designed for.  Similarly, wildlands are now cut by roads at fifteen-mile intervals, and it is hard to remember the formidable quality of the original frontier.  But all that could change in a historic area that is larger and more self-contained.

Second, the reconstructed nineteenth century environment will allow the rediscovery of earlier social patterns and earlier ways of doing things. This is so because the historic area will be large enough to support permanent populations. And people living with a certain technology will find that this technology leads to certain behavior.  For starters they will be far from ringing cell phones and insistent palm pilots.  But beyond that, they are surely going to rediscover other things like delivery wagons, and town laundries, and group singing of old songs, and porches with awnings for talking on hot summer days.  The frontier area is likely to appeal to visitors precisely for the chance to revisit this earlier set of approaches to the tasks of daily life.

Third, an area big enough to have several different towns can arrange them to show the progression of history.  Each town in the string might follow an architectural model from a little further back in the past:  (1) A town of 1914. (2) A town of 1905, with gaslight and a telegraph office. (3) A town of 1885, with kerosene light. (4) A more specialized ranching town of 1880. (5) A pioneer settlement of 1865. (6) An Indian pueblo. (7) An Indian cliff dwelling.  (8) A simpler Indian village of pit houses or huts.   These towns would not compete with other towns, elsewhere in the West, that have the region’s authentic original buildings.  Rather, they would complement the original brick-and-mortar towns by presenting the other, intangible part of the full historic picture.

Outdoor recreation

The towns are not intended just for the benefit of historically minded visitors, however.  They will also be uniquely valuable to many kinds of outdoor recreation.

Some people will use the towns as stepping stones for day-by-day activities that cross the wildlands between them.  These people may travel by foot, horse, bicycle, or raft.  Whichever means they choose, they will be able to travel and exercise by day, and sleep in comfort each night.  In this way they will be able to cross seventy miles of difficult country without encountering a single car or a single electric light — a real adventure and accomplishment, but one that might not be practical otherwise.   Realizing this particular benefit — and safeguarding the value of the towns — will provide a solid motivation to remove inconsistent uses and to protect lands that are now vulnerable to unwise forms of development.

Other people will use the towns as base points for more demanding kinds of wilderness adverture.  The proposed route along the Colorado and Dolores Rivers curves in a great arc around the northern end of the Uncompahgre Plateau.  Wilderness campers can explore the heart of the plateau, and can cross the river to one of the towns when they need rest and supplies.  This will provide support services without breaking the sense of being far from the modern world.

Economic benefits

Unlike a traditional national park, this area is designed to include centers of population and economic activity within its borders.  This means that it will bring an unusually high level of economic benefit to the host county.  Preliminary calculations suggest that the frontier area itself may generate 375 permanent new jobs and $30 million in economic activity.  Traffic in the gateway city of Grand Junction would add still more value.  All these jobs would put a premium on the skills developed by people raised in the West, knowing the local landscape.

In order to achieve these economic benefits, two divergent goals must be balanced.  We must be sure that the park is reasonably accessible to a variety of visitors.  But we must also make sure that it is not so heavily and casually visited that its character is lost.

These goals can be harmonized by graduating the towns along the length of the park, in such a way that civilization gradually “thins out” along the valley, just as civilization thinned out to wilderness along the original frontier.  The first town, with its public access by rail, would be reasonably accessible to many people. The later towns, without public transportation, will be then would become progressively smaller, further apart, each one a little more demanding to reach and seeing fewer visitors.

The park should be able to achieve its economic benefits without subsidies.   The sale (or long-term lease) of building lots should be able to cover the costs of creating the area.
Meshes with local values

This kind of park seems to be consistent with Western values.

It is consistent, first of all, with the tradition of multiple use.  It is really just an extension of that concept, adding to the menu two additional new uses that haven’t been offered on public lands in the past — a celebration of the pioneer history of the region, and  provision of ways for ordinary people to undertake extended desert travel without professional help.

The new park is also largely consistent with current land uses.  The proposed historic corridor will be very inconspicuous — really just one slender line.  It will thin out in stages from a rail track, to a dirt road, to a pack trail, to a footpath.  The towns along it will be equally inconspicuous, ten miles apart, compact, consisting of small houses set close together.  The first ones might be like the older sections of Georgetown and Silver Plume, and later ones just clusters of a dozen buildings.  Some towns could be set back from the river, hidden away in side canyons or on higher ground.  A traveler could pass half a mile away from one and never know it was there.  The first of these towns would probably best be built within the McInnis Canyons conservation area, but if local opinion feels strongly otherwise they could begin just downstream from there.  In either case the corridor will not greatly affect the present feel and current uses of the land.
Elements of support

Some important elements of physical and political support for the park are already in place.

The most important physical element is the city of Grand Junction itself.  It is a major hotel and transportation hub, and is just the right distance from the park to serve as a gateway to it.  Visitors can leave their cars there and reach the park with a short train ride.  (An alternative route of entry can be provided for local residents.)

The existing train tracks are a specially valuable asset, in exactly the right place.  They link the city with the sites for the first few historic towns, and then turn aside from the valley so that the remaining towns will be properly remote.  So the most expensive element in the infrastructure for the historic valley already exists and will  not need to be bought.

Many of the political elements needed for a successful project are already in place as well.  The Bright Angel advocacy group has a detailed vision set out on its website; a preliminary business study suggests that the project would be economically self-sustaining; there is solid interest in the concept from various offices at the Interior Department (contingent on a showing of economic feasibility and of support from local government); and exploratory talks have been held with business, political, and green groups in the city.

As the project begins to move closer to realization, further support can surely be found in other, more specialized interest groups.  These might including groups that enjoy vintage trains, working horses, period music and dancing, older strains of flowers and livestock, and similar things.

In conclusion

To sum up, this project seems to fit the interests of the Grand Junction area in three separate ways:

• It continues the good work of the current McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, and extends that work to adjacent river valleys that are still in need of protection.

• It serves the public interest by creating a desirable new kind of historically-oriented park.

• It presents a unique business opportunity for the region by creating an entirely new type of travel destination, unique in all the world, that will surely bring in visitors from all the world.


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