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Chiricahua National Park Act could provide economic boost to Cochise County

WILLCOX–U.S. Rep. Martha McSally is promoting legislation to designate Chiricahua National Monument as a National Park. If the move is successful, Arizona would gain its fourth national park.

H.R. 6190, known as the Chiricahua National Park Act, would shift the 12,000 acres of the national monument in Cochise County to status as the latest of the 58 existing National Parks in the U.S.

The move stands to increase visitation of the area and provide an economic boost to local communities.

To many, “national monument” is inadequate to describe the mountainous landscape split by deep forested canyons and studded with igneous rock spires, according to Teresa Palmer, visitor center coordinator at the Willcox Chamber of Commerce & Agriculture. She noted that the national monument title confuses many potential visitors.

“People, when you tell them the Chiricahua National Monument, they think of a statue that they are going to see, and they are not that interested,” Palmer said. “But if you say it is a national park, then their interest is piqued and they want to go.”

Officially, the distinction between the two titles is subtle, and primarily resides in the manner in which it was established and by whom it is administered.  National monuments can be created by presidential proclamation or through congressional legislation. The National Park Service manages all national parks, while some national monuments can be run by several agencies, including the Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

“There are folks who like to visit all of those that are named national park, and we certainly know and acknowledge that the words national park after the name of one of our units do attract more peoples’ interest,” said Patrick O’Driscoll, a spokesman for the Intermountain region of the Park Service, which oversees parks in Arizona and seven other states.

Chiricahua National Monument employees and a National Park Service spokesman agreed that the renaming would likely increase tourism.

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“Probably one of the most significant impacts could be higher visitation,” said Libby Schaaf, chief of interpretation at the monument.

Nearly 48,000 people visit the Chiricahua National Monument each year on average, according to data published by the Park Service.

The visitor experience isn’t likely to change because the management of the area won’t be drastically different.

“National monuments, national parks, national historical parks, national seashores, we’ve got all kinds of different designations of units within the National Park Service, but as a practical matter, we treat them all the same,” O’Driscoll said.

In a press release, McSally extolled the landscape and economic boost the move would provide.

“Re-designating this area as a national park would boost tourism, grow our economy, and add more jobs in southern Arizona,” she said. 

If the bill passes, Chiricahua would become Arizona’s fourth national park and at 12,000 acres its smallest, alongside Grand Canyon (1.2 million acres), Petrified Forest (93,500 acres) and Saguaro (91,400 acres).  

There are currently 14 national monuments in the state, including Chiricahua.

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Alex McIntyre/Arizona Sonora News

Pinnacles frame a forested hillside near Massai Point off of the Ed Riggs trail in Chiricahua National Monument south of Willcox on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016.