An Ugly Fight Is Brewing Over Public Lands In Colorado

Environmental groups have petitioned the White House to establish a national monument along the Dolores River — and many local residents are fuming.

In mid-February, Sean Pond, a resident of remote Nucla, Colorado, learned from an area rancher about an effort to convince President Joe Biden to establish nearly 400,000 acres of canyonland surrounding the Dolores River as a new national monument.

At the time, Pond had no knowledge of the Antiquities Act, the landmark 1906 law that gives presidents the unilateral power to protect federal lands with natural, cultural and scientific values. Eighteen presidents, Republican and Democrat, have used the law to designate 161 national monuments.

But within days, Pond emerged as one of the most vocal opponents of the monument effort, sounding the alarm about what he described as a looming “federal land grab” in his backyard.

“I had absolutely no idea. But I do now. And I don’t know how to go back to thinking normally,” he said in a video recently posted to Facebook. “Once your eyes are open to the real picture, the real threat, the threat from our own government, it’s scary.”

However, the push is not coming from the Biden administration. Rather, a coalition of environmental groups has petitioned the White House to establish a national monument along the Dolores River, and the administration has not signaled that it is considering the proposal.

That comes as little comfort to Pond. He views the movement to establish Dolores Canyons National Monument, along with the Biden administration’s goal of conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030, known as 30x30, as part of a global scheme to control land and strip away individual rights.

“They just don’t want people there,” he told HuffPost. “Let’s strip away the layers of BS. The goal is to get people off the land and off of waters. To stop oil and gas, to stop mining, to stop offshore drilling — in the name of climate change.”

National monuments have become a political lightning rod in recent years, in no small part due to former President Donald Trump’s controversial monument review and subsequent dismantling of two protected sites in Utah in 2017. Along with reversing Trump’s rollbacks, Biden has used the Antiquities Act to create or expand several monuments since taking office.

When it comes to the future of the Dolores River corridor, both proponents and opponents of the monument say they want to protect the landscape. They just have wildly different views about how to do that.

In many ways, the fight over a proposed monument in Colorado is an extension of the larger political battle over the future of America’s public lands. While the Biden administration and Democrats have sought to bolster protections to combat climate change and biodiversity loss, Republicans have worked to keep as much of the federal estate as possible open to drilling, mining and other extractive uses.

Tug Of War

Conservation advocates have worked on and off to secure greater protections for the Dolores River since the 1970s, when it was first identified as being suitable for protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. While there is bipartisan legislation on the table to protect the southern portion of the river as a national conservation area, discussions to safeguard the northern portion of the Dolores in Mesa and Montrose counties have derailed.

“We’ve seen a failure of leadership in both [Mesa and Montrose] counties on the legislative approach,” Scott Braden, director of the Colorado Wildlands Project, one of the 14 conservation groups behind the monument proposal, told HuffPost. “That’s one of the reasons why a national monument is an attractive tool to look at.”

In April, Grand Junction Mayor Anna Stout traveled to Washington, D.C., to deliver a petition to the White House signed by more than 100,000 people who want to secure monument status for the Dolores.

“By protecting this landscape, we can ensure future generations can enjoy the same natural beauty and economic opportunities that we ourselves have been fortunate to experience,” Stout said at a press conference in Washington.

Stout joins members of Congress, tribal leaders and community advocates at a "Monumental Call for Action" rally outside the U.S. Capitol in April to urge the Biden administration to expand, designate and protect national monuments.
Stout joins members of Congress, tribal leaders and community advocates at a "Monumental Call for Action" rally outside the U.S. Capitol in April to urge the Biden administration to expand, designate and protect national monuments.
Paul Morigi via Getty Images

Proponents have stressed that while a monument would change little in terms of public access, it would leverage resources in order to better protect cultural resources, restore degraded habitat and develop recreational infrastructure.

The effort has been met with fierce opposition in the small communities closest to the proposed boundary, a region known as the West End. And like other anti-monument campaigns, this one has become rife with fear, speculation, misinformation and anti-government sentiment, all of which was on full display during a listening session that Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) held in Naturita, a small town in the West End, last month.

In a lengthy interview with HuffPost, Pond said West End residents feel they’ve been lied to and that the coalition of environmental groups behind the monument push is trying to force its values upon area stakeholders.

“To realize that we, the people, have no voice in this, that the people most affected didn’t know about it, couldn’t speak about it, that it threatened our livelihoods, our incomes, our communities,” he said. “To think that a sitting president has so much power that he could literally extinguish our way of life was terrifying.”

Pond is spearheading the growing anti-monument campaign in southwestern Colorado, dubbed Halt the Dolores Monument. Within a few days of hearing about the monument effort, he started an online petition to block a future designation, which has garnered more than 7,500 signatures. He has asked supporters to donate money to the cause, promising to hire attorneys to fight a future Dolores designation and other monument efforts across the country. That effort is in its early stages, he said.

“I want to put a multi-state pact of opposition together and let the people in Washington, D.C., and Congress know that we need to repeal the Antiquities Act of 1906,” he said at a community meeting in April. “It needs to be looked at by Congress or by the Supreme Court. The only way to stop the federal government from stealing your public land is to repeal the Antiquities Act of 1906.”

It is worth pointing out that the lands in question are already federally owned and held in trust for all Americans. If Biden were to designate a national monument at Dolores Canyons, the federal government wouldn’t be stealing anything. Like it or not, all Americans have a stake in these lands being eyed for a future monument, whether they live 10 or 1,000 miles away. That is what makes them public lands.

A coalition of environmental groups has petitioned the White House to establish a national monument along the Dolores River.
A coalition of environmental groups has petitioned the White House to establish a national monument along the Dolores River.
UCG via Getty Images

But Trump commonly spun that definition, and opponents of monuments have embraced one of his administration’s main talking points: that recent presidents have “abused” the century-old Antiquities Act to “lock up millions of acres of land and water.” That argument, however, was founded on cherry-picked data and ignores the fact that some of America’s most treasured national parks, including Arizona’s Grand Canyon and Alaska’s Glacier Bay, were first protected as sweeping national monuments in the early 1900s. It was President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, who signed the Antiquities Act into law.

Project 2025, the 920-page policy blueprint that dozens of right-wing organizations compiled to guide Trump should he win reelection in November, specifically calls for repealing the Antiquities Act.

At a congressional budget hearing last week, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) prodded Interior Secretary Deb Haaland about her familiarity with the Dolores River National Monument proposal, which Boebert called a “unilateral land grab” and falsely stated would encompass 1.6 million acres.

“It sounds like this is just another strategy the department is employing to lock up more lands across the West and undermine energy dominance,” Boebert told Haaland. “I strongly oppose this misguided effort by extremists to designate this national monument in the Dolores River corridor and its surrounding areas in southwest Colorado, and it’s very concerning that you’re not familiar with what’s going on.”

Boebert also gave a shoutout to Pond, her constituent, for raising awareness about the issue before condemning the Biden administration’s 30x30 initiative as a “land and water grab” championed by radical environmentalists. This sort of anti-30x30 rhetoric can be directly traced to a disinformation campaign that American Stewards of Liberty, a fringe right-wing, anti-federal lands group with ties to both the Trump administration and the fossil fuel industry, launched immediately after Biden set the national conservation target.

On the Halt the Dolores Monument petition page, Pond wrote that a monument threatens to restrict hunting, recreation and cattle grazing and “could lead to a possible cessation of mining activities.” On Facebook, he and the group have shared AI-generated images depicting the future monument, which feature a veteran and a young boy, both in wheelchairs, behind gates that read “closed.”

Braden of the Colorado Wildlands Project has tried to allay local residents’ fears in public interviews and a recent column published in the Montrose Daily Press. In an interview with HuffPost, Braden stressed that the coalition’s proposal is just that — a suggestion of how to better safeguard a sensitive landscape, including its wildlife, water resources and Indigenous cultural sites, from the impacts of climate change, overdevelopment and growing visitation.

Braden also pushed back on opponents’ narrative, noting that proponents’ vision for a monument would preserve access for hiking, hunting, camping and livestock grazing. As for mining, the proposal would prohibit new mining claims while honoring existing mineral rights within the boundary, with the goal of better balancing extraction with resource conservation. He noted that the boundary was carefully drawn to exclude 90% of the active mining claims in the region.

“What’s frustrating is that we see, despite explaining and engaging with all these issues, the same things brought up,” Braden said. “That tells me it’s become more intentional misinformation: ‘You won’t be able to graze, you won’t be able to hunt, you’re trying to shut down our dreams of future mining.’ That’s not what we’re trying to do, and I feel like we’ve gone to great lengths to try and explain that.”

While the area has a long legacy of mining uranium and vanadium, the industry has been largely dormant for decades. Opponents fear environmentalists are working to stymie an industry comeback and have condemned the monument push as little more than an “anti-mining campaign.”

For people like Pond, promises about sustained access for grazing, mining and recreation ring hollow. Pond noted that it would ultimately be up to federal agencies to decide how the land is managed following a monument designation, and he fears it would ultimately lead to greater restrictions over time.

“They’ve already submitted their petition to D.C. What happens with it now going forward is completely up to the executive office,” he said. “To me, they shouldn’t be making promises.”

If a monument was ultimately established via presidential proclamation, federal agencies would then craft a management plan, a process that would likely take years and include public input. The White House did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment about whether it is weighing the monument proposal.

‘Bullied, Threatened’

The monument fight has given rise to increasingly nasty rhetoric and personal attacks.

On Facebook, Pond has condemned monument backers as “evil” liars and “environmental terrorists.” He’s called out local business owners who support the proposal by name, painting them as outsiders who don’t speak for the community. Aimee Tooker, president of the West End Economic Development Corporation, has accused Braden’s organization — without evidence — of repeatedly hacking the Halt the Dolores Monument group’s Facebook page. And in a social media post addressed to an unnamed “bully,” Tooker issued this warning: “You do not need to worry about my wrath, but you sure as hell should worry about God’s.”

In March, Braden sat down with Brock Benson, a local business owner and podcaster against the monument declaration, to talk about the coalition’s vision for protecting the area. Braden stressed that opponents’ concerns are largely rooted in misunderstanding, that the monument proposal is a starting point and not a final decision, and that he and other supporters want to work with local residents to find lasting conservation solutions.

“This is a dialogue. There’s a long way to go before anything happens,” Braden told Benson. “We want this to happen with the community, not to the community. And we want it to be a good thing.”

This map shows the boundary of the proposed Dolores Canyons National Monument, as envisioned by a coalition of conservation groups.
This map shows the boundary of the proposed Dolores Canyons National Monument, as envisioned by a coalition of conservation groups.
Protect The Dolores

Although it was clear from the get-go that Benson doesn’t share Braden’s view, the conversation was respectful. But three weeks later, Benson hosted several monument opponents on his show. He opened the episode with a dramatic monologue in which he attacked Braden, at one point seemingly comparing him to a date rapist.

“He insists that we can trust him because he’s kind enough to give us his word and explain that he wants to do this with us, not to us,” Benson said, referring to Braden. “It gives me pause. I’m not sure I’ve heard a term more caustic with veiled threat. It’s exactly what you say to a person when you’re trying to get them to believe that what you want to do to them is for their benefit, and you don’t really care about them, you just need them to say ‘yes’ so you can get what you want. And to that, the people of the West End say, ‘Date rape is still rape.’”

Braden has been working in the land protection arena for more than a decade. Never in his career has he experienced such vitriol, he said.

“This, without a doubt, far exceeds any kind of heated rhetoric I’ve seen in the past around a particular issue or campaign,” Braden said. “What has changed, I think, is the culture more broadly — the political culture in America.”

“Rather than have an informed conversation about how we collectively manage public lands and conserve one of the last, best wild places in the West … we’re in a different place of just like, ‘These outsiders are coming to take something away from us,’” he continued. “That’s really unfortunate. How can we have any conversation about public lands if those are the terms of the debate?”

The discourse has already had a chilling effect, with some monument proponents backing away from voicing public support, according to Braden.

At last month’s listening session in Naturita, only two monument supporters took the microphone. One of them, Sarah Lavender Smith, a long-distance runner and author from Telluride, a small town approximately an hour to the southeast, was repeatedly booed and jeered by the crowd of hundreds of monument opponents.

It was a moment that exposed the extent to which residents of the West End are convinced that outsiders are trying to steal something that belongs to them — a sentiment that Pond helped foster, although he condemned how the audience treated Smith.

In a Facebook video ahead of the meeting in Naturita that Pond later described as an “angry post,” he railed against Braden and other “outsiders” who’d been invited to a separate, invite-only meeting with Hickenlooper and mocked “liberal” proponents who have said they feel threatened by the increasingly nasty rhetoric.

“I am burnt out and sick and tired of people from outside this community coming to my home and telling me what you think we should do with it,” Pond said. “You don’t speak for us. You’re an outsider. You are not of this community. Your voice carries no weight. Go back to where you came from, or come to our home and try to fit in and support our values. Our values, not your values. And that doesn’t mean you’ve been picked on or bullied, it means I don’t agree with your bullshit.”

Pond told HuffPost that the last two months have been an “emotional rollercoaster” for local residents as they’ve learned about proponents’ vision for the landscape. He acknowledged that at times he has let his emotions get the best of him, but said the ferocity of the response from local stakeholders comes down to feeling like they are fighting to protect their way of life against organized groups who don’t care about their interests.

“The fierceness comes from the stakeholder side as a form of self-defense,” he said. “We feel attacked and we feel like we don’t have a voice, like it’s not up to us.”

Many involved in the monument battle — Braden, Hickenlooper and Pond, to name a few — have called for lowering the temperature.

In a Facebook post in March, Natalie Binder, who owns a boutique camp outside Naturita, said she and other monument supporters have been “bullied, threatened, shouted down and harassed,” and urged everyone to voice their position respectfully. Pond told HuffPost he has received death threats and that it is time for everyone to “peel off the labels that divide us.” And at the Naturita listening session, Hickenlooper told reporters that he believed there was common ground between opposing sides.

“Once people hear all the sides, I think they will be more willing to compromise,” he said, according to Colorado Public Radio. “Maybe not get what they want, not their perfect outcome, but they’ll get [to], ‘Yeah, I can live with that.’”

Whether that will prove true remains to be seen. Many opponents have made it clear that they see a presidential monument declaration as a nonstarter.

If the public debate so far has spotlighted anything, it’s that the vast majority of area stakeholders share a deep love of the landscape and want to protect it. They just vehemently disagree that a monument would help do that.

“This is the last free, unspoiled place in western Colorado that I’m fighting hard to protect,” Pond said. “I’m protecting it from that spotlight, from exploitation, from becoming a tourist destination.”

Braden views this as an opportunity to secure much-needed protections for the area in a reasonable amount of time.

“What the final shape of conservation looks like is yet to be determined,” he said. “We have a monument proposal, we think that’s a reasonable way to conserve the landscape, giving protections to the things that deserve protection but also being flexible enough for other uses. We stand by that. But we are willing to engage in the process and go with the give and take that comes with a political process, and I wish I could say the same is true about our opposition.”

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