MONTROSE — A Montrose county resident is challenging the federal government’s jurisdiction over public access to lands managed by the National Park Service stemming from the closure of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park last fall.
During the October 2013 congressional shutdown of the federal government, Colona resident Rocky Bentley physically removed portions of a concrete barricade at the South Entrance to the Black Canyon. The road leading to the park from U.S. Hwy 50 is Colorado Hwy 347.
Bentley claims the government had no authority to close the entrance, and that while the National Park Service does have jurisdiction over the park’s lands, it lacks the authority to close the park’s rights-of-way and roads.
On Oct. 4, 2013, Bentley said he removed metal linkage connecting sections of the concrete barricade. The next day, Oct. 5, Bentley said he and others removed one of the concrete sections, gaining access to the park.
“I said, well, I’m going to take part in a little civil disobedience, and so I did,” he told The Watch Monday. “Taking down an illegal barricade was not illegal.
Bentley said he and others took advantage of sunny weather that Saturday, Oct. 5, and drove to several overlooks to view the canyon’s painted walls before leaving the park. After leaving the park, the group pulled their vehicles to the side of Hwy 347, where Bentley said a park ranger pulled up, issuing a citation and performing an illegal search of his vehicle without a warrant.
Bentley said the park service has no jurisdiction to issue citations outside the park, and the rangers themselves were furloughed government workers operating without authority.
“They were not being paid; therefore, they were not ligament employees of the government,” Bentley said.
Calls seeking comment from the National Park Service were not returned.
Bentley faces one count each of vandalism and trespass in a closed area, and two counts of driving on an expired license on federal property. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. Although a two-day trial was scheduled for this week, Bentley’s attorney will file a motion to dismiss the charges.
Calls to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Grand Junction for comment were not returned; a spokesperson of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver, however, said the Park Service had the authority to close the road during the park’s shutdown.
Last October, park rangers at the Black Canyon were directed to turn tourists away, due to the federal closure. Although they were wearing their uniforms, the rangers were told to work without pay.
“We have to work, but we’re not getting paid, but if we don’t work then we’re in trouble,” one ranger told The Watch at that time.
Last fall’s stalemate in Washington closed 400 national parks and museums, furloughing approximately 800,000 workers. Some workers were able to receive compensation after the shutdown elapsed.
In Bentley’s motion to dismiss — filed this week — he claims “the situs of the South Rim Entrance to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is not on land administered by the National Park Service; neither is it on a roadway or a parking area under the legislative jurisdiction of the United States.”
When the Black Canyon transition from a National Monument to a National Park in the 1990s, land within Montrose county was deeded from the county to the state.
Bentley argues this land, which includes the park’s South Entrance, “is on a right-of-way easement subject to the legislative jurisdiction of the State of Colorado,” not the federal government and such easements are still retained by the state.
“It shall be conclusively presumed that no such jurisdiction has been acquired,” Bentley’s motion states.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office disagrees, citing the closure as a safety issue.
If convicted, each count (all Class B Misdemeanors) carries penalties of not more than six months imprisonment, and not more than a $5,000 fine.