The Colorado River runs across Greater Canyonlands from northeast to southwest, winding its way through the Canyonlands Basin before converging with the Green River in Canyonlands National Park.  Copyright Tom Till.

In just two short years, you’ve built a movement.

We launched a campaign to encourage President Barack Obama to designate a Greater Canyonlands National Monument; it has spread across the nation.  It began with SUWA members but now boasts the support of many other organizations and their members, including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Grand Canyon Trust, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and more than 100 local and national businesses from the outdoor recreation industry.

We may take some pride in the rapid growth of today’s campaign, but the idea of protecting Greater Canyonlands reaches back 80 years and perhaps well beyond.

The National Park Service first proposed a national monument protecting Greater Canyonlands and the surrounding canyons of the Colorado River in 1935. The following year, the first proposal for a 6,000-square-mile Escalante National Monument recognized the need to preserve the extraordinary character of southern Utah’s redrock wilderness—including the area now known as Greater Canyonlands.  Pro-development advocates attacked this visionary idea, but President Franklin Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes continued to push for a 4.5 million-acre Escalante National Monument through 1940.

World War II diverted our attention, but Bates Wilson, then superintendent of Arches National Monument, worked tirelessly to introduce decision makers to this remarkable place in the 1950s.

“That’s a National Park!”
Wilson found an ally in John F. Kennedy’s Interior Secretary, Stewart Udall.  In 1961, Floyd Dominy, tireless head of the dam-building Bureau of Reclamation, flew Udall in a small plane to show him where he hoped to build his next dam: just below the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers.  But Udall didn’t see a new dam site.  Instead, he famously looked down and exclaimed, “Goodness sake, that’s a national park!”

After that plane flight, Udall directed the Interior Department to begin planning a one million acre Canyonlands National Park.  But Congress whittled down the proposal, and when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the public law creating the park in 1964, he preserved just 257,400 acres—about a tenth the acreage of Yellowstone National Park.

Canyonlands was expanded in 1971 to its present 337,570 acres, and a year later the creation of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area added some additional protection to the lands surrounding Lake Powell.  Yet even with these additions, the boundaries of Canyonlands National Park were political boundaries that divided the watershed and left most of Greater Canyonlands without an adequate shield against development.

Fifty years after Stewart Udall’s vision of a Canyonlands National Park, Greater Canyonlands remains one of the last untouched frontiers of the West, and one of the largest areas in the lower 48 states wild enough to offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity to proclaim an environmental legacy and protect a beloved landscape.  With the stroke of a pen, President Obama could declare the area a national monument through his authority under the Antiquities Act.

The Antiquities Act is a tool that allows the president to move quickly to protect threatened places of  extraordinary scientific and historic value.  Greater Canyonlands qualifies lavishly on the values front. Sadly, it confronts an array of threats that are broad, serious, and immediate.

Greater Canyonlands sweeps across a vast network of canyons and mesas filled with scientific, cultural, and historic treasures—precisely the sort of place that the Antiquities Act was designed to protect.  Its focal point is the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers in Canyonlands National Park—Dominy’s quintessential dam site, Udall’s national park.

A Mostly Unread Library of Human History
Beginning nearly 12,000 years ago, Paleo-Indians moved through and lived in the Greater Canyonlands region in relatively small numbers.  Two of the earliest Paleo-Indian sites in North America lie along the Green River within Greater Canyonlands.

The Greater Canyonlands region reveals its rich human history through numerous pictographs and other culturally significant sites. Copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA.

As the Ice Age gave way to warmer climates, the Green River corridor and nearby springs remained a lush refuge for Late Pleistocene mammals: mammoths, mastodons, camels and sloths, and the massive short-faced bears and saber-toothed tigers that preyed on them.  Such concentrations made ample, if not easy, prey for Ice Age hunters with their stone weapons.

During the Archaic period, large animals became fewer and humans in Greater Canyonlands adapted to become efficient harvesters of plants and seeds while hunting small mammals like rabbits and deer. As the massive ice sheets melted away, the raging Green and Colorado Rivers emerged as formidable barriers to social and economic exchange.

The Paleo-Indian hunting culture gradually gave way to farming cultures in the Archaic Period.  Thousands of dry caves and alcoves in Greater Canyonlands preserve evidence of adaptation of human populations to changing climates over 10,000 years.  One site, Cowboy Cave in Horseshoe Canyon, offers a dramatic example.  Deposits dating back15,000 years show dung left by mammoth, bison, horse, camel, and sloth, and run through 10 millennia of human occupation.  Excavations at the cave yielded the oldest rock art in Utah with a known date, and unfired clay artifacts dated to between 7,400 and 5000 B.C., the earliest found on the Colorado Plateau.

Growing Populations
About 2,000 years ago, the introduction of agriculture, ceramics, and the bow and arrow from the south enabled people to more successfully adapt to life in the arid canyons.  Populations grew rapidly as the Anasazi and Fremont cultures became established and dominated the region.  This period produced an unparalleled concentration of archaeological sites in Greater Canyonlands, with an average of 24 sites per square mile in many parts of the region.

Around 900 A.D., the Colorado River suddenly ceased to be a barrier.  A massive migration of Ancestral Puebloan farmers swarmed into Utah, reaching hundreds of miles beyond their ancestral homelands.  Most of the archaeological evidence in Greater Canyonlands comes from this interval between A.D. 900 and 1300: scores of cliff dwellings along the Colorado River corridor, “forts” along the Green River (defensive outposts or early warning stations), and diverse rock art styles that signify distinct cultural identities.

The Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont cultures disappeared even more abruptly than they emerged.  In the late 13th Century, burgeoning populations encountered drier, hotter conditions that produced inconsistent crop yields, hunger, social strife, general chaos, and rapid abandonment of the farming lifestyle—and abandonment of much of the region.

Similar shifts occurred more or less simultaneously throughout North America.  That brought  broad and deep changes to the Native cultural landscape just prior to the entry of Europeans.  Deciphering the details of this great tragedy in the remote canyonlands of Utah may shed light on how this widespread catastrophe devastated the farming cultures of North America and could perhaps yield insight into how modern populations might react to and deal with climate change.

Europeans entered the region in the 1700s, when Spanish explorer-priests rode north from New Mexico.  The two branches of the Old Spanish Trail skirted Greater Canyonlands just to the north and south, defining and acknowledging the region’s ruggedness and remoteness by avoiding it.

The remote and undeveloped nature of Greater Canyonlands protects historical sites that span the full history of the boom-and-bust West—beginning with mountain man Denis Julien’s first Anglo-American inscriptions along the Green and Colorado rivers in 1836 and John Wesley Powell’s epic journeys in 1869 and 1872.  Pioneer wagon roads, sawmills, and ranch structures tell the stories of isolated family ranches and early homesteaders.  As the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch used Robbers Roost and nearby canyons along the Dirty Devil as hideouts, a key stop along The Outlaw Trail.

Rivers and Wildlife
A Greater Canyonlands National Monument would preserve a good deal more than science and history. Greater Canyonlands possesses more plant diversity than nearly any other region in Utah.  Its 960 species of plants make up fully 57 percent of all plants known on the Colorado Plateau.  A 6,500-foot elevation range coupled with diverse rock formations—each eroding to unique geography and soil types—defines Greater Canyonlands.  Its ecotypes run from salt desert shrub to lush grassland, from piñon-juniper to alpine coniferous forest.  The mosaic of environments created by two-dozen distinct rock layers nourishes nearly a thousand species of desert flora and a rich array of wildlife, from black bears on Elk Ridge, to mountain lions and desert bighorn sheep at Hatch Point, to peregrine falcons in Labyrinth Canyon.

In the heart of the plateau, Greater Canyonlands also protects critical watersheds along the Colorado and Green Rivers, as well as the Dirty Devil and San Rafael Rivers.  The central veins of the Green and Colorado Rivers flow southward—defining the Greater Canyonlands’ network of drainages.  The Green loops for 50 miles through the sinuous bowknot curves of Labyrinth Canyon, which the BLM recommended to Congress as worthy of Wild and Scenic River designation.  Significant tributaries—the San Rafael River, oasis-like Tenmile Creek, and Barrier (Horseshoe) Creek—cut deep gashes in the surrounding benchlands before joining the Green in this reach.

The Colorado runs across Greater Canyonlands from northeast to southwest—from near Moab southward into the Canyonlands basin surrounding Canyonlands National Park and on to its confluence with the Green (and the whitewater of Cataract Canyon).  Indian Creek, Salt Creek, and Dark Canyon join the Colorado from headwaters on the flanks of Elk Ridge and the Abajo Mountains.  Greater Canyonlands ends near Hite, Utah, where the Colorado meets the Dirty Devil River (flowing through one of the most rugged and remote landscapes in the American West) and White Canyon (after its descent from Natural Bridges National Monument).

Unprecedented Threats
This complex of canyons, mesas, mountains, and basins, of natural bridges, arches, rincons, and spires, rivals the Grand Canyon in importance and scale.  Yet today, Greater Canyonlands stands unprotected, facing unprecedented threats.  Potash mining is exploding in the region, as is the pressure from oil and gas drilling.  Between the Green and Dirty Devil rivers lies an area known as the Tar Sands Triangle, the development of which would permanently transform the region.  And rapidly increasing off-road vehicle (ORV) use threatens both the landscape and the archaeological resources that are found throughout the area.

March2013_GreaterCanyonlandsMap(Topo)_TarSandsTriangle2For decades, the BLM turned a blind eye to damage from unrestricted vehicle use in the Greater Canyonlands area.  The toll includes vandalism of (and irreparable damage to) prehistoric cultural sites, soil erosion, polluted streams and damaged riparian systems, wildlife fragmentation, and a host of other impacts to the area’s natural resources.  In a belated effort to control the damage, the agency instituted a designated route system in 2008.  Although the free-for-all era of cross-country ORV use was over, the Bush administration’s BLM merely adopted the crazy-quilt network of user-created trails, never troubling to examine the routes on the ground to determine whether natural and historic resources were being damaged by the routes.  In fact, the BLM designated a sprawling network of over 2,500 miles of routes in the Greater Canyonlands area—nearly three times as many designated routes as are in the comparably-sized Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

If the BLM can’t be bothered to examine routes on the ground, SUWA certainly can.  We have found that nearly 1,000 miles of the agency’s designated routes are inappropriate.  Examples include routes that are redundant or non-existent—that is to say, invisible—on the ground.  Some lead to nothing in particular or, at best, an old oil well drill site or stock tank.  Others are in streams and riparian areas or near known cultural sites.

Greater Canyonlands’ remoteness, ruggedness and sheer scale helped it to endure essentially unchanged for millennia.  Passers-through, from Native people to explorers and casual wanderers, could do little more than peck at its surface.  It is not so much that they lacked the will to leave a more lasting and visible print but that they lacked the means.  That day is gone.  Today, the means for transforming entire landscapes are all too ready at hand.  And so is the inclination to use them.  That makes almost miraculous the fact that not a single power line traverses this still-wild place; few human constructions mar natural horizons.  Preserving Greater Canyonlands makes even more sense today than it did decades ago when Interior Secretaries Harold Ickes and Stewart Udall each first imagined preserving millions of acres of the area’s redrock country.

The question is whether President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell share the vision of the FDR and Kennedy administrations.  Greater Canyonlands is an unimaginably rugged but achingly vulnerable expanse filled with scientific, cultural, and recreational riches—one of the last intact large landscapes in southern Utah’s redrock wilderness or anywhere else.  It’s a landscape worthy of the president’s attention, and with your help, we’ll get it.  Become involved by visiting GreaterCanyonlands.org.

—Mathew Gross and Stephen Trimble

(from Redrock Wilderness newsletter, Summer 2013 issue)