Steve Wooten stands on a low ridge overlooking the Purgatoire River and the yellowed grass and red rock of southeastern Colorado's canyon country. His family, which first settled here in 1929, now runs about 300 cows on 27,000 public and private acres of shortgrass prairie spiked with cholla cactus.
Wooten points to a juniper-covered mesa across the Purgatoire. His neighbor there is not in the ranching business: That's the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, a 238,000-acre training area the U.S. Army set up in the early 1980s. V-22 Osprey aircraft and helicopters sometimes scatter Wooten's cattle.
About a decade ago, the Army proposed a massive $1 billion expansion of the site, up to 7 million acres. It would have involved seizing private lands — through a legal process called eminent domain — across most of the southeastern corner of the state, an area bigger than Maryland, displacing more than 17,000 people.
A feisty group of local ranchers, farmers, businesses and officials sprang up in response. Wooten became vice president of the Piñon Canyon Opposition Coalition, which allied with university scholars and conservation groups. They surveyed the area and identified its rare and impressive natural and historical resources, including neo-tropic bird migration stopovers and centuries-old Native, Hispanic and Anglo artifacts.
In late 2013, congressional representatives from Colorado convinced the military to withdraw the waiver allowing the expansion. Somehow, this ragtag group of ranchers, farmers and nature-lovers had defeated the world's largest military.
But even as they celebrated the victory, Wooten saw other challenges looming: a long-lasting drought, an up-and-down livestock market, struggling ranches and dying downtowns.
"We see our young people not coming back from college and opening new businesses here because they don't see an economic chance. We have more attrition than we have growth," Wooten says. "That should be a wakeup call."
Wooten's family sells landscaping stones, raises horses, and opens its lands to hunting, art workshops and "guest ranching" to get by. That led him and others to embrace the idea of "heritage tourism" — bringing in visitors who want to experience an area's natural and human history. Perhaps they could preserve the region's resources, avert future Army expansions, bring in money and even attract new residents.
"My thought is, how do you create a community that is economically stronger and more diversified and balanced, and I saw a heritage area as a tool to help us do that," says Wooten.
He had no idea that garnering the necessary support would make defeating the U.S. Army seem almost easy in comparison.
Heritage tourism is not a new idea. Since 1984, the National Park Service has designated 49 national heritage areas across the country, including several in Colorado. Unlike national parks, the government neither owns nor manages all lands within a heritage area. Instead, heritage areas recognize "lived-in landscapes" with a cohesive identity and unique historical and natural resources.
Though there is not a lot of data on the designations' long-term impacts, they have opened the door to increased government funding, which helps leverage other private and state grants, as well as money to support historic preservation, conservation, recreation and tourism.
The South Park National Heritage Area in Park County, for instance, encompasses a 1,700-square-mile, mountain-ringed basin with a mining history and the headwaters of the South Platte River.
Since its 2009 designation, South Park's recreational and heritage tourism has increased, says Linda Balough, the heritage area's executive director, while roughly $900,000 from the Park Service has leveraged $3 million total for historic preservation, tourism and related programs.
That sounded ideal for southeastern Colorado, which, with its sprawling ranches and smattering of small towns, is a region apart: Its fewer than 50,000 people tend to be older, poorer and less educated than those in other parts of the state. The Lower Arkansas Valley, which includes the Purgatoire country, has lost 1,557 residents since 2010 and 698 jobs since 2011, both more than 1 percent declines.
Drought often dries up stretches of the Purgatoire, and wells that once reliably pumped snowpack-fed groundwater have dwindled to a trickle. Wooten's relatives survived the Dust Bowl, but he says the last 15 years have been "way worse" for southeastern Colorado. "Drought" — pronounced "drouth" — "has everybody's herd reduced," he says.
Local farms, which raise corn, melons and beans using Arkansas River water, have also dwindled as water brokers stealthily buy up agricultural water rights to supply the Denver area's fast-growing communities. The process, known as buy-and-dry, has virtually ended farming in nearby Crowley County, which now depends on feedlots and state prisons for jobs and local revenue.
Yet the area has unique cultural treasures. The Park Service manages the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, where a Colorado Territory militia infamously slaughtered Arapaho and Cheyenne families in 1864, and Bent's Old Fort, a 19th-century trading post where volunteers dress as trappers and mountain men. There are fossilized dinosaur tracks in Picketwire Canyonlands, part of the Comanche National Grassland.
Other attractions include Boggsville, a stagecoach stop on the Santa Fe Trail and the last residence of Kit Carson, outside Las Animas in Bent County, and Camp Amache, a World War II-era Japanese American internment camp, near Lamar in Prowers County.
Tourism is sluggish and services are modest, though. The Park Service reported just over 28,000 visitors to the two sites it manages there in 2013 — about a week's worth of visits to Mesa Verde National Park — generating $1.54 million for nearby towns and supporting an estimated 21 jobs. Creating a national heritage area seemed one way to boost those anemic numbers while respecting local culture and land rights.
A regional nonprofit heritage-tourism task force, Canyons & Plains of Southeast Colorado, led the way, pulling together some key landowners, including Wooten, The Nature Conservancy, local land trusts and the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation, which offered funding for a feasibility study. But when Canyons & Plains announced the study at a February 2013 meeting, the response caught them completely off-guard.
When his job as a writer-researcher for the electronic information database LexisNexis was outsourced in 2008, Norman Kincaide left Colorado Springs and moved to the small town of Rocky Ford, in Otero County, where he had bought four property lots in the depressed housing market.
An articulate, meticulous man, he became active in the county historical commission and began attending Canyons & Plains meetings.
When he heard about the proposed heritage area, Kincaide had a visceral reaction.
"I thought there was a hidden agenda," he says.
He began writing letters to local newspapers depicting heritage tourism as a charade to keep grant money flowing to Canyons & Plains, and facilitate a federal takeover.
Heritage areas are a "mechanism to expand the power and influence of the NPS without ... having to buy any more park land," he wrote in the Pueblo Chieftain and other regional newspapers.
A February 2014 column in the Rocky Ford Daily Gazette claimed that "eventually 300 million Americans will live in [national heritage areas] so the Chinese can spend their vacations visiting the human zoo that once was the United States of America."
His writing attracted like-minded skeptics, including Barbara Leininger, a former teacher whose family runs cattle on 35,000 acres of public and private ranchlands.
Leininger sees the shuttered downtown storefronts as part of a necessary transition in an area that grew around horse-and-wagon travel; she says livestock auctions remain steady economic contributors, while heritage tourism is "a pipe dream" built around a fickle tourism economy.
Leininger and Kincaide helped create the Southeast Colorado Private Property Rights Council and began holding meetings. Misinformation about heritage areas quickly spread. Opponents said the designation would permit the Park Service to seize private property and prohibit ranching and energy development.
The Park Service occasionally has acquired land and created management rules that affect private property, but the 2009 Omnibus Public Land Management Act, which created 10 new heritage areas, including South Park and two others in Colorado, specifically barred the feds from buying private land or imposing local zoning changes.
The facts were drowned out by the noise, including rumors that locals would be forced to wear 19th century-style clothing. Some suggested the proposal was part of Agenda 21, a United Nations initiative for sustainable development, which right-wing commentators regard as a global land-grab conspiracy. Ultimately, every county commission in the Lower Arkansas passed a resolution opposing the effort.
"It just snowballed and came to the point that people were really fearful that their lands could be taken away," says Pam Denahy, Canyons & Plains board member and La Junta's tourism director. "No matter what we said and what facts we presented, they weren't listening."
By summer 2014, the heritage-tourism partners surrendered and tabled the feasibility study.
"We said to the anti-NHA side, 'The ball's in your court. Put something on the table. We know what you don't like. Give this community an idea for economic development,'" Wooten says.
"It has been absolutely silent."
There has been some new activity in the region, however. Wooten takes me on a 45-minute, dirt-road drive from his ranch to the tiny town of Kim, population 74. It's an hour's ride from the next nearest town in every direction, and "almost lost in time," says R.C. Patterson, who ranches just outside the community.
The town's only gas pump is at the general store, but there's no diesel for truckers and no apparent local industry.
And yet on the eastern edge of town rises a brand-new, cavernous, 80,000-square-foot covered rodeo arena, with 24 hookups for trailers and RVs and 40 horse stalls.
"As far as competition-sized arenas, there's nothing this big under a roof for hundreds of miles around," says Patterson, a former champion bareback bronc rider.
The Mustang Pavilion seems an unlikely economic game-changer, but it's the sort of project that can find local and outside support, and help increase area visits and spending. Funding came through $1.1 million from Great Outdoors Colorado, the state lottery-supported grant program, and from the Gates Family Foundation and local donors.
The pavilion was "a different strategy and totally driven by the folks there," says Thomas Gougeon, president of the Gates Family Foundation, which more typically funds land and water conservation projects.
Last year, the grounds hosted junior rodeos, 4-H workshops and rodeo clinics, and Patterson says a few families have moved into town because of the arena. He says there is talk of bringing in a Western wear store, and credits the pavilion with tripling available motel lodging — from one to three rooms, he laughs.
Best of all, in 2013, locals approved a bond to match state funds to renovate and expand the New Deal-era school. Under the bond, every family will pay about $3,000 over time to support the construction — a significant investment that will be matched by grants. Both Wooten and Patterson believe the pavilion development won over many people's support.
More than a year after suspending work on the heritage area, Canyons & Plains and its partners have refocused on more modest efforts: developing farmers markets, promoting locally grown food and agri-tourism, and installing signs that direct visitors to nearby attractions. But they haven't entirely abandoned the idea of the heritage proposal.
"We still think it could be the right thing for this region," says Alexa Roberts, superintendent for the two Park Service historic sites and a Canyons & Plains board member. "Clearly, we have the heritage here."
After all, even Norman Kincaide was attracted to the area by its unique cultural and natural resources. The opposition remains active, though: In October, it won a court ruling, preventing a vote to organize the Bent County Metropolitan District, which would have been empowered by a new property tax to fund the local historical society and recreation programs.
Back in the Mustang Pavilion, Patterson looks up at a wall lined with flagstones engraved with local livestock brands. He offers what sounds like a bit of cowboy wisdom: "You can be in a pretty tough spot, but what direction you're going is maybe more important than where you are."
This article first appeared in High Country News.