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National Parks ‘listening sessions’ cost $38,320 and filter free speech

Lisa Eckert, the embattled National Parks director for the Colorado National Monument conducted ongoing “listening sessions” last week, seeking public comment on her plan to prohibit certain vehicles from Monument Road, a public right-of-way which runs through the Colorado National Monument from the Grand Valley to the ranching community of Glade Park. Eckert admits that her plan to prohibit “hazardous material” hauls on Monument Road did not “land well,” but nevertheless appears to be pushing forward.

Following the June announcement of her unilateral prohibition of essential vehicles from Monument Road, Eckert received significant blowback, including a reprimand from Mesa County’s regional newspaper. But despite unyielding public opposition to her plan, Eckert continues to spend thousands on expensive “facilitators” to moderate and report on her “listening sessions.”

According to a Sept. 24 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel column (subscription required) by Gary Harmon, those hired to moderate Eckert’s series of listening sessions have cost American taxpayers well over $38,000. The article says:

A Boulder-based company, CDR Associates, [last spring] planned and conducted listening sessions and interviews in connection with the drafting of a visitor activity and commercial services plan and a final report. The Park Service paid CDR $26,876.

Karen Barbee of Steadfast Communications received $11,444.80 for moderating the two October meetings. Barbee is a Glenwood Springs resident and certified trainer with the Center for Non-violent Communication.

Barbee’s “non-violent communication” approach did not go over well at the Oct. 7 meeting in Glade Park, where she attempted to lull the crowd by using “reflective” language and “emotional words,” often used in mediation and conflict resolution. Barbee told the crowd several times that their “anger” would prevent the meeting from being productive, which many attendees found insulting.

Using her “non-violent communication” technique, Barbee restated the comments from audience members, submitting the restated versions to the written record of the meeting. Nancy Aldrich-Arellano of Glade Park protested Barbee’s subtle paraphrasing of comments saying, “That’s not what I said. Please don’t twist my words!”

Both Barbee and Eckert told the audience of their desire to “find solutions together.” The people of Glade Park—none of whom displayed support for Eckert—made it clear there would be no agreement with her plan to prohibit vehicles such as propane trucks, cattle trucks, and hay haulers from Monument Road.

Feeling like déjà vu all over again, the residents of Glade Park were irate since the Oct. 7 meeting was round three in the Monument Road battle, and many felt that they were simply not being heard by Eckert and others from the National Park Service. Glade Park resident David Wilkenson wrote of Eckert’s facilitated listening sessions, “It looked suspiciously like a disingenuous, wannabe-clever manipulation to achieve her goals.”

Resistance from those who live and work in Glade Park is not Eckert’s only hurdle to banning certain vehicles from Monument Road.  In 1986, the matter was decided in the U.S. District Court’s John R. Wilkenson v. U.S. Department of Interior, et al. decision. In that case the people of Glade Park joined forces with Mesa County to push back against restrictions and fees applied by the National Park Service regarding the use of Monument Road. It reads:

It is…Ordered, Adjudged and Decreed, that a public right-of-way exists in that portion of Rim Rock Drive extending from the East Entrance of the Colorado National Monument to the Glade Park Cut-Off, and across the Glade Park Cut-Off [*1281] connecting the DS road to Glade Park with the Monument Road to Highway 340, and the use of that road for the purpose of continuous travel through the Monument in a non-recreational use for which no entrance fee may lawfully be charged, and the defendants enjoined from charging any such fee or otherwise preventing such non-recreational use of the roadways.

Speculation mounted the following evening, Oct. 8, that Eckert’s listening sessions constitute more spectacle than substance when another public meeting was held at Two Rivers Convention Center in Grand Junction.

David Wilkenson, the brother of John R. Wilkenson, the plaintiff in the 1986 case, stood quietly outside the doors of Two Rivers handing out fliers which cited and summarized the District Court ruling that concluded Monument Road is a public right-of-way. Wilkenson says was approached by a representative from the National Park Service who asked for one of his fliers, then went back inside. A few moments later, employees from Two Rivers Convention Center asked him to leave the premises.

Despite the fact that Wilkenson was contacted by a National Park Service representative before being thrown out by Two Rivers’ staff, Eckert told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in an Oct. 10 story that she found out about the incident after the fact:

“There was a question of contract and that question was asked to Two Rivers staff who I assumed handled (it) accordingly,” Eckert wrote [in an email]. “Since Mr. Wilkenson has never introduced himself to me, it’s unfortunate he didn’t choose to attend the public meeting and do so. I believe there was a lot of varied input and sharing.”

Eckert implied that Wilkenson “didn’t choose to attend the public meeting,” when Wilkenson, as reported to Watchdog Wire by witness Sean Hunt of Grand Junction, that he was asked to leave.

I later interviewed David Wilkenson to discuss the 1986 case with him, as well as his experience of having been forced off the premises of Two Rivers Convention Center, where Eckert was purportedly conducting a public meeting. He said that by using “facilitators” to paraphrase comments made by Mesa County citizens, Eckert was preventing an opposing voice from participating in a public meeting, and thus “infringing on the First Amendment rights of citizens.”

Of the ongoing battle for Monument Road, which is a lifeline for the people of Glade Park, Wilkenson said, “It’s fundamental to the operation of the Colorado National Monument that the National Parks Director be in touch with the people of the region.” Whether or not Lisa Eckert gets more in touch with the will of the people of Mesa County has yet to be seen.

Photo of Monument Road meeting taken by Marjorie Haun

Marjorie Haun

Marjorie Haun is a fire-breathing conservative journalist, commentator, humorist, agitator. Currently doing freelance work. Her areas of expertise are education, culture, mental health, religion, and parenting. Follow her on Twitter: @Reagan_Girl

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