Playing Politics

Courtesy Senator Mark Udall

Colorado Senator Mark Udall is a climber. Will that make a difference when it comes to upgrading Colorado National Monument into the state’s newest national park?

The climber above me moved capably, fluidly up the first pitch of Otto’s Route on Independence Monument, a 450-foot bottle-shaped pillar of sandstone, the biggest monolith in Colorado National Monument. I watched him with more than my usual interest in scoping out the best hand- and footholds. After all, it’s not every day you get to rock climb with a U.S. senator.

Democrat Mark Udall was here, along with members of Mesa County’s Search and Rescue Team, to commemorate the Fourth of July by raising an American flag atop the monument. The annual tradition was started 101 years ago by John Otto, the visionary who helped create the monument in 1911 and became its first caretaker.

For the Colorado senator, the appeal of tackling the 5.9-rated climb was “a combination of personal challenge and wanting to celebrate the Fourth in a unique and special way.” Tall and fit, wearing a khaki T-shirt he received from U.S. Marines during a visit to Djibouti, climbing capris and a Fort Carson baseball cap, Udall didn’t look like someone who spends most of his time navigating the power corridors of D.C. Indeed, before being elected to Congress in 1999, he developed some serious mountaineering chops and had worked his way up from a course leader to executive director of Colorado Outward Bound over a 20-year career at the famed outdoor school. His climbing resume includes Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest peak, as well as other peaks in the Himalayas, Denali, Aconcagua and an attempt on Everest.

Though it’s been a decade since Udall has attempted any serious climbs, he has an ongoing project to summit the hundred highest mountains in Colorado (at press time, he was at 98).

“I love being in the mountains,” he says. “I’m a mountaineer at heart, and I’m also a generalist at heart. I think the best way to live your life is to be curious, to be interested in a lot of different things. Mountaineering demands that you’re a route finder, you have some technical skills, you can cook a passable meal, you can predict the weather, you can take care of yourself. There’s a simplicity to it that I love, and it’s a nice balance to my really busy life as a senator.”

The balance of mountaineering—knowing when to push, knowing when to back off—can also translate into political savvy. “We’ve all been on mountains where we might have pushed it a little hard and, in retrospect, could have turned around,” says Udall, who stresses that it’s important not to fall into the habit of making the summit the only goal. “It works in the world of politics and policymaking, too.” And the emotional toughness that climbing demands is a good political attribute, he adds.

t was more than just climbing that brought Udall to Colorado National Monument this visit, however. The senator arrived in the Grand Junction area the day before to assess local sentiment for and against converting the monument into a national park. In May 2011, Udall, who chairs the National Parks Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, along with Congressman Scott Tipton (R – CO), formed a group of local community leaders who would begin to explore that potential.

“John Otto really wanted it to be a park,” says Udall. “The story is that Congress ran out of time to legislate this gorgeous set of canyons into a park, so [President] Taft used the Antiquities Act to designate it as a monument. But what people think of as a monument is often a plaque or a little obelisk. This name, particularly—Colorado National Monument—doesn’t express what this landscape is.”

While public sentiment is split on the issue, those who favor a national park believe the new designation would provide an economic boost. The next step involves analyzing community feedback and, if warranted, drafting a preliminary bill that would then be shared with the various stakeholders.

“As we build a more diverse economy in Colorado, one of the key pieces will be sustainable tourism,” said Udall.

Meanwhile, we topped out on Independence Monument at the end of the fourth pitch—after a final crux move that felt like climbing a bar of soap—and took in an awesome view. Salmon-tinged rocks and cliffs wildly sculpted by the elements, valleys punctuated by dark-green pinyons and juniper, a pale-blue sky streaked with wispy clouds unfolded below us. One thing, above all, was clear. Whether monument or national park, this is a landscape to be cherished and preserved. •

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