The U.S. Department of the Interior is reviewing 27 recently designated national monuments, and it has an opportunity to create something new and good.
For a generation now, the country has been locked in a battle between “wilderness” and “development” in managing the public lands of the desert Southwest. But what we really need are new tools and concepts that will break the deadlock and serve a wider variety of users.
A promising new kind of mixed-use designation would be a "frontier area." This would re-create a segment of the original 19th century Western frontier. Rather than just preserving empty land, as a conventional national monument does, it would present the distinctive mix of settlement and wilderness that marked the pioneer West. The area would be established in a scenic valley that is largely left in its natural state. Along it would be a string of small towns and farming areas, built new on the simple but far-reaching conditions that period architecture is used, and that cars and electricity are banned. The result would be a string of 19th-century towns in an extended 19th-century landscape.
This frontier area will provide a unique window into the past. The towns will allow us to see the kerosene-lit, horse-drawn world of a previous generation, on a landscape-wide scale that is large enough to step into and experience as an entirely alternative way of doing things. The towns will also support a variety of outdoor activities. Visitors can travel among them by foot or horse or can use them as a base for exploring the surrounding wilderness, never too far from support services but at all times very far from the modern world.
Such an area would benefit many different groups.
Outdoor recreationists would find the towns perfect stopover points for a weeklong hike, or for more extended travels through rugged country. Other, more specialized users could use the towns as bases for hunting or fishing trips in season.
Historic preservationists will find in the towns a way to rediscover the intangible half of the historic record. Today’s beautifully conserved buildings can tell only part of the story. They are often surrounded by tour buses, streetlights and commercial development, and do not convey a sense of the daily like they were designed for. But people living in a 19th-century town without electricity are going to rediscover things like ice delivery wagons and town laundries and porches with awnings for talking on hot summer days.
Local economies would benefit because the area will bring in visitors. Some of these will be hikers planning to walk the length of the valley. Others will be families renting a house for a week or two, perhaps to get the children away from video games. Others may be institutions, such as history departments at the local university, which may keep a branch building here. All will pass through the gateway communities on their way to the frontier area. And all will be spending money in the local economy.
Local workers would find options for new kinds of work practicing traditional skills such as outfitting or wagon-making.
Everyone’s sense of place would benefit because the frontier area is a way to celebrate the history and culture of a particular location. Human settlement will be seen as a story to be honored, not as an intrusion to be resisted.
Land conservationists will benefit from more contiguousness in conserved land. The extensive land between and around the towns will be protected (as ranching, or old-style farming, or left undeveloped) in order to retain the period feel of the valley, thus bringing land conservation measures to settled areas and valley floors, and allowing entire ecosystems to be preserved.
In short, this combination of historic preservation and land conservation will create an entirely new kind of travel destination. Many people will gain from that.
Neil Averitt grew up in Denver and in Cedar City, Utah, and later managed the antitrust planning staff of the Federal Trade Commission. He is head of the Bright Angel Frontier Project, and can be reached at email@example.com.