TUCSON, Ariz. — Organizers of a campaign to redesignate a southern Arizona national monument known for its rare geological formations into a national park say it will boost tourism in the largely rural Cochise County.
Chiricahua National Monument is about 115 miles southeast of Tucson and near the New Mexico border. Its unusual rock formations and many hiking trails draw about 57,000 people annually, but local leaders believe it would be even more popular if it were designated as a national park instead of a monument.
U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, has introduced legislation for the change, which has to be approved by Congress. The bill doesn’t have co-sponsors yet.
“It would be one of the highest honors,” said Bob Gent, a Sierra Vista resident who is behind the campaign. Gent began working on the change over a year ago and has received wide support, including in western New Mexico, which is close to the monument. “It’s a geologic wonder of the world,” he said.
Many monuments have been upgraded to parks, including the Grand Canyon, which was redesignated in 1919, 11 years after becoming a monument. But the process is difficult, and few monuments in recent years have been able to make the transition. The last monument to be reassigned park status was Pinnacles National Park in central California in 2013, according to the National Park Service.
There are only 59 national parks and 80 national monuments. The key difference is that national parks are larger and have different resources that require protection, while monuments are intended to preserve usually just one nationally significant resource.
The small number of national parks means the designation comes with prestige and attracts people from all over the country, Gent says. The redesignation wouldn’t expand the monument’s boundaries, staff or budget, he said. The monument is a little over 12,000 acres in size and has an annual budget of $1.7 million. It was established in 1924.
Whether it’s the twice-yearly wine festival in Willcox or the Wild West gun shows in Tombstone, Cochise County’s economy relies heavily on tourism, said Mary Tieman, the executive director of the Sierra Vista Area Chamber of Commerce.
Tieman, who also sits on the tourism commission, said tourists spent over $300 million in the county in 2015, but that the area needs to attract more people. Changing Chiricahua’s designation is one piece of the puzzle.
“We know that will be a huge, huge, huge contributor. There are a lot of people who plan their whole vacation around a national park,” Tieman said.