Guest Blog: Why I Support the Proposed Dolores Canyon National Monument

Sarah Lavender Smith
|June 20, 2024

As trail runners, I believe we have an obligation to care about the wilderness areas we traverse and to help steward them. I’ve been a public lands advocate for the past decade because I care about trails and the nature around them. I also believe that preserving wild open land is critical for biodiversity, and that managing the extraction of minerals, oil, and gas from them needs to be part of the climate solution.

The 170-mile Grand to Grand Ultra self-supported stage race traverses and skirts extremely remote public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Some of it, like the Vermillion Cliffs and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments and the Paria Canyon wilderness area, receive special protection for their endangered wildlife and their special cultural and archeological artifacts. Most of it, however, is unprotected and viewed as a national resource to use, not necessarily to conserve.

Doing the inaugural Grand to Grand Ultra in 2012—then again in 2014 and 2019—sparked my interest in this vast open space and what we can do to keep it wild and visit it with minimal impact. I began supporting the Conservation Lands Foundation, the only nonprofit dedicated to protecting and expanding America’s National Conservation Lands, which are specially protected public lands managed by the BLM. I want to spread awareness about the network of relatively new National Conservation Lands, and why they matter, because the public generally doesn’t know much about them; we tend to focus more on our national and state parks.

I’ll be returning to race the 2024 edition of the Grand to Grand Ultra and will aim to raise money and awareness for Conservation Lands Foundation as part of my buildup to the event.

In late April, I found myself at the center of a controversy in western Colorado, in a region near Nucla and Naturita known as the West End, that has polarized people in neighboring communities while spreading mistrust and misinformation. It has to do with a proposal to designate nearly 400,000 acres of land in a river canyon, about an hour west of where I live, as a national monument. In a high school gymnasium packed with angry opponents of the proposal, who don’t want the federal government “locking up” their ability to use and mine the region as they see fit, I spoke in favor of the monument designation to protect the area. It wasn’t easy, but I couldn’t in good conscience sit there and not express a contrary point of view. My reasons are summarized below in a letter to the editor to our local paper, which I also sent to Colorado’s two U.S. senators.

Why I Support a Dolores Canyon National Monument

In late April, I attended a public gathering in Naturita organized by Senator Hickenlooper to hear feedback on the proposal to protect the Dolores River Canyon by designating it a national monument. I was one of only two speakers, out of more than 50, to express support for it. I applaud Sen. Hickenlooper and former state Sen. Don Coram for setting a tone of civility and bipartisan dialogue. Their respectful example, however, didn’t stop the crowd from loudly booing and cutting off my remarks before I finished. I’m writing to share what I hoped to express that day.


Dolores River's historic Hanging Flume. Photo by Sarah Lavender Smith.

I have deep respect for the hard work and resiliency of miners and ranchers, and for the history of the region. My grandfather David S. Lavender was a miner and cattle rancher, and in the 1920s and ’30s, he lived in the West End and operated a ranch on all the acreage that became Uravan. Through him, I learned about the boom and bust cycles in the West End. I also have gotten to know the Dolores canyon area by running many miles on its trails and reporting on the West End’s efforts to rebound after the shutdown of the Tri-State coal-fired power plant. I love the landscape and feel for its communities. So why do I support a national monument in the area instead of leaving it as is?

In my view, it’s smart long-term planning to transition to a cleaner, more sustainable broad-based economy, and to protect the wildlife corridors and biodiversity that’s essential for the future of the natural world, rather than carving up the landscape with pipelines, powerlines, and roads. A national monument would not affect existing valid mining claims but would, importantly, protect the environmentally sensitive public lands from future mining claims and oil and gas leases.

A national monument (designated by the executive branch) is perhaps the best and only way to protect the beautiful northern portion of the Dolores River canyon in Mesa and Montrose counties. The watershed’s southern portion would be protected as a National Conservation Area if congressional legislation, which I also support, ever becomes law.


Dolores River. Photo by Sarah Lavender Smith.

Monument designation would create a much-needed framework for discussion and collaborative planning with public input, as stakeholders create a resource management plan to determine the boundaries and accommodate uses including recreation, grazing, and hunting.

At the forum, some opponents called the monument proposal a “federal land grab” and used “stop the steal” language, which ignores that the fed government already owns and manages the land; that’s why it’s public. All citizens—not just local residents—should be able to have a say and stake in the public lands’ future.

As for locals’ concerns about crowds, it’s important to note that national monuments managed by the Bureau of Land Management are vastly different from national parks and do not typically result in anything resembling a “tourist trap.” They’re kept as natural as possible, with minimal infrastructure. The designation may bring a small and steady amount of visitors, not crowds, for outdoor recreation, which could benefit local businesses from Gateway to Naturita.

Designating a national monument around the Dolores River would protect the waterway and canyon country for future generations while bringing additional resources to the area to care for it. I think that’s a win-win.

Image of Sarah Lavender Smith

Sarah Lavender Smith of Telluride, Colorado, is a writer and ultrarunner. The following is excerpted from her “Mountain Running & Living” newsletter at

Photo by Melissa Plantz.

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