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Senate OKs bill to establish Chiricahua National Park, measure still awaits House action

Chiricahua National Monument is closer to becoming a national park, a more prestigious designation that could bring more tourism and jobs to Southeastern Arizona, after the U.S. Senate voted in favor of the move without any dissent.

Along with the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest and Saguaro parks, the Chiricahua mountains and their rhyolite rock spires would become Arizona’s fourth national park.

Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly has taken the lead in getting the bill passed, and noted in November, after getting it out of committee, that “it is a captivating natural and geological wonder— a real gem in our state.”

“Chiricahua Monument is a natural wonder and deserves to be a national park," he said in a public statement on Thursday. "This designation will boost tourism in Southeastern Arizona and create more jobs in the region. I’m excited that we got this bill across the finish line in the Senate, and I’ll keep working until it is signed into law.”

Kelly introduced the bill in April 2021, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema cosponsored the bill, saying it “expands investment opportunities that will further promote the park’s conservation, boost tourism and create jobs in Cochise County.”

A version was also introduced in the House by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat who represents the area, who called the Chiricahuas and its spires “crown jewels” for the nation.

That bill has had a hearing in the Subcommittee on Natural Parks, Forests, and Public Lands — part of the House Natural Resources Committee chaired by the Democrat from the other side of Tucson, Rep. Raul Grijalva. No vote has yet been held on the House bill.

Grijalva supports in principle designating the monument as a natural park, his office said.

The bill passed in the Senate lacks several provisions found in the one sponsored by Kirkpatrick, including involving representatives of area Native America tribes in managing the park, and barring mining within its boundaries.

The Chiricahuas, known as a "wonderland of rocks," were made a national monument in 1924 to preserve its towering magma-formed rock pinnacles, some hundreds of feet tall, that balance on rocks, often smaller ones, which makes it seem like they’re ready to topple. The Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal public works program, named many of the individual formations in the 1930s. 

The pinnacles were formed after a cataclysmic volcanic eruption 27 million years ago left ash and debris to settle and compact then eroded over time. The eruption also created shallow caves, faults, ancient lava flows and a giant caldera around the rock formations.

There are 63 national parks, which are protected by the U.S. Department of Interior through the National Park Service. The NPS manages 104 national monuments on its own, but dozens of others are overseen by other federal agencies including the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.

A national park “contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources,” according to the NPS, while a national monument “is intended to preserve at least one nationally significant resource. It is usually smaller than a national park and lacks its diversity of attractions.”

Presidents can create national monuments via executive action, but national parks need approval from Congress. There more than a dozen national monuments in Arizona including the Casa Grande Ruins, Montezuma Castle and Organ Pipe Cactus, which is in Pima County near Ajo and to the west of Tucson.

The first national park was Yellowstone, extablished in 1872, before the creation of the National Park Service in 1916. The most recent national park designation was that of the New River Gorge in West Virginia in 2020. Other national parks include Joshua Tree, Zion, Mesa Verde and White Sands, which was established in New Mexico in 2019.

The Chiricahua National Park Act is supported by communities in Southeastern Arizona, including the Benson and Bisbee, Huachuca City, Willcox, and the Cochise County Board of Supervisors, according to a statement by Kelly.

The monument is located near the Arizona border with New Mexico, between Interstate 10 and State Road 80. Visitors from around the world come to it for hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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