The 6,000-acre national monument, with its stunning redrock amphitheater and high alpine scenery, already draws over 500,000 visitors annually. Monument manager Paul Roelandt and Forest Service district ranger Dayle Flanigan told Iron County commissioners this week that by expanding the monument to include the adjacent Ashdown Gorge Wilderness Area and Flanigan Arch, which lies just outside the wilderness area, a new park would not only be feasible - but a boon to the county's economy.
"It would make the monument more noticeable and probably bring in more tourists," Roelandt told commissioners during their weekly meeting. "Now sometimes, when Utah's national parks and monuments are listed [in travel guides], we don't appear. That could change."
Early reaction to the proposal by area political leaders has been cautious - but upbeat.
"I don't know much about it, but it probably makes sense from an economic standpoint," said Sen. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch, a former Garfield County commissioner. "Having spent my life among these parks, they are a much bigger draw in terms of generating economic activity and creating more jobs. If we're going to set aside these lands, it makes sense for the communities to support the idea of a park."
The prospect of expanding Cedar Breaks and turning it into a national park arose in January during a gathering of the county's land use task force, which is attempting to fashion a comprehensive land use plan. Given the already-protected status of lands around the monument, proponents believe that upgrading to national park status wouldn't be too much of a reach.
But it's not a simple task.
Any such change would require congressional approval. And that would come at the end of a lengthy process of public input. But Steve Chaney, superintendent of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado, says it can be done.
Great Sand Dunes National Monument, located northeast of Alamosa at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, was proposed for national park status in 1999, and achieved it 18 months later - growing from 40,000 acres to 150,000 acres. Chaney says the park was created as the result of a grass-roots movement that sought to protect the groundwater supply under the monument and surrounding area.
"It was a huge legislative planning effort that involved a lot of folks, from the Nature Conservancy to the water districts," Chaney recalled. "They had to come up with legislation that was acceptable to all of the partners. Had that consensus not been reached, it never would have happened."
Chaney says the impact of having national park status is still difficult to quantify. But there is no question that media exposure has increased, which bodes well for the long term. Great Sand Dunes also received a sharp increase in funding - its capital projects budget was hiked from $600,000 to $5.5 million.
Cedar Breaks monument manager Roelandt told county commissioners he has discussed the national park proposal with Utah congressional representatives and the National Park Service's regional director in Denver, and received encouraging responses. Still, there are some hurdles.
There is an island of 320 acres of private land in the wilderness area that would be part of the expanded park. Iron County Commissioner Wayne Smith says that the two property owners in the past have been open to selling the property in exchange for other parcels. Commissioner Dennis Stowell, whose family owns land in the wilderness area, recused himself from the discussion.
Among those attending the commission meeting were descendants of William Flanigan, who discovered the arch named after him in 1916. They like the idea of Flanigan Arch becoming part of a new national park.
"We'd like easier access provided to the arch and [to] have it preserved," said great-granddaughter Jesse Baker.