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Dinosaur National Monument: More Than You Can Imagine
Are many months as fickle as April?
Bogged down in gooey mud that once had been the campground at Deer Lodge in Dinosaur National Monument while grilling brauts over an open fire in the pouring rain didn't seem to portend a good river trip. At least it wasn't snowing. No, that would come the next night.
True Rocky Mountain fashion.
Standing the next morning on the banks of the Yampa River as clumps of foam that had been stirred up by spring runoff sailed off downstream while leaden clouds scudded past overhead, things didn't look particularly encouraging for a five-day river trip. But that's the beauty of Rocky Mountain weather. You usually can wait it out.
Indeed, following the rain and sleet that played a staccato on our tents all the night before, our party of 10 on four rafts managed to get in about eight hours of mostly cloudy weather with no precipitation so we could load the boats, put-in, and meander down to Anderson Hole for our next camp.
But the fickleness soon returned.
Not long after our tents were taut and the kitchen fired up and ready to go -- beneath a portable awning, of course -- the snow arrived in grand fashion, falling not just down, but sweeping sideways, downstream and upstream, even back up into the heavens at times.
April 26. Springtime in the Rockies.
But it was Dinosaur, not springtime, that had sent our group gliding down the swift surface of the Yampa. It's a trip not many can savor, as the Yampa is an unbridled river, one that slams shut its rafting window by late June. As the snowmelt wanes, the river simmers down, and the rock gardens raise themselves. Those who tempt their skills in canoes and kayaks after July 1 have the river -- as well as the mosquitoes, deer flies, and other biting insects -- to themselves.
No matter the season, the Yampa is an incredible voyage for boaters. It's not technically challenging, although the Warm Springs Rapid certainly can be tricky at certain water levels. But the landscape is gorgeous and the remoteness a joy to savor and explore.
Though the Yampa flows through northwestern Colorado into northeastern Utah before melding with the Green River, the landscape is much more southern Utah -- big, towering sandstone monoliths fluted by the river. Main canyons dwarf boaters and swivel their heads around in awe. Side canyons harbor alcoves and pot holes bigger than hot tubs and hide patches of history. Grassy benches with box elders. Some perches of rock high above the river are dotted with potholes rich with cattails and other watery vegetation, anchor Ponderosa pines large enough they seem capable of snagging clouds, and feature curious geologic formations that baffle the imagination.
Those who wish to float through Dinosaur often are confronted by a dilemma. Do they hope to pull an early-season permit for the Yampa and face the possible weather consequences, or toss in their lot with a trip down the Green River, itself not a shabby choice in the least. Indeed, is there any other unit of the National Park System that can claim two world-class rivers coursing through their guts?
While the Yampa has Tepee, Big Joe, and Warm Spring rapids and countless side canyons that hold petroglyphs, pictorgraphs, and journeys into the nearly 211,000-acre monument's rugged backcountry, the Green counters with Disaster Falls, Triplet Falls, and Hell's Half Mile. as well as countless side canyons that hold petroglyphs, pictorgraphs, and journeys into the monument's rugged backcountry.
So alluring is the Yampa that while Major John Wesley Powell on his own river trips back in the 1860s and 1870s didn't run it, he had his crew row a couple of miles up the Yampa from its confluence with the Green at Steamboat Rock.
So enticing were these two powerful streams that Congress almost OKed dams that would back up 63 miles of the Green and another 44 miles of the Yampa. (Of course, the downside to that decision was the agreement to build the Glen Canyon Dam that today holds back Lake Powell.)
These two rivers, the Yampa and the Green, alone should be justification enough to redesignate Dinosaur as a "national park." Toss in the incredible fossil remains that are entombed here, the long Native American history, the more recent Western bandit history (Butch Cassidy slept here!), and the rugged wilderness that lies within its borders and Dinosaur easily deserves the "national park" designation.
Not that there's anything terribly wrong with the "national monument" status. Indeed, that probably fends off quite a bit of visitor traffic and helps Dinosaur retain its wild side and enables nearby Vernal, Jensen, and, ahem, Dinosaur, to keep their sleepy profiles. And it more than likely keeps Dinosaur's budget on the low side.
But ask some folks who are keenly familiar with Dinosaur and they don't hesitate when you run the label question by them.
‘I think it’s probably the finest river experience in the country, and most people don’t know that," says Chas Cartwright, Dinosaur's superintendent from 2002-05 and currently running the show at Glacier National Park. "Having an undammed river like the Yampa and a dammed one like the Green through the Gates (of Lodore), it’s a spectacular one."
Denny Huffman, the monument's superintendent for a decade, from 1987-1997, also is quick to agree that Dinosaur is well-deserving of the "national park" moniker.
"I think absolutely YES," he says. "The diversity of resources, the fact that the park lies at the intersection of three major bio-geographical regions with related wildlife and botanical resources, depth in historical significance and cultural resources, and the world- class paleo resources all auger for the park name in my view."
Mary Risser, Dinosaur's current superintendent since 2005, answers the question by referring to the nomenclature of the National Park System.
"What they say is a national park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to provide adequate protection of the resources," notes the superintendent. "A monument is intended to preserve at least one nationally significant resource. It’s usually smaller than a national park, and it lacks a diversity of attractions.
"So, when you look at the definition, Dinosaur would definitely qualify as a national park. When you think about the resources that we have here, you start with the Douglas Quarry, which is the world’s best window into the Jurassic-era dinosaurs, (and) we’ve just found probably one of the world’s most significant cretaceous area dinosaur quarries right across," continues Superintendent Risser. "We have two of the West’s premier white-water rivers. ... and then we have over 200,000 acres of wilderness. I think Dinosaur has features that you find in all the other national parks in the state (Utah).
"We can trace human history for 10,000 years here. It has the most complete geologic record in the National Park System, even more so than Grand Canyon. So it’s just a spectacular place."
For roughly two decades a Salt Lake City man, Bob Waite, has campaigned to change the monument's designation. He's even launched a website to promote the change.
But locals aren't overly warm to the idea.
"One of the issues is that there is really very little local support for having a designation change," says Superintendent Risser. "I’ve talked to our Uinta (Utah) County commissioners, and the main thing is with the national park designation comes Class I air quality. I think they’re concerned about what the Class I air quality designation would mean on energy development.
“One of the commissioners told me that if you’re just looking at the land, 'Yeah, it would be wonderful, we could support that,'” she adds.
Then, too, others say, there long has been an anti-government sentiment among western Colorado politicians. Some fear a change in designation would result in a change of allowed uses on the monument, they say, while others hold out hopes of getting new uses at Dinosaur that aren't currently allowed.
Mr. Huffman and Superintendent Risser both note, though, that nothing would change on the ground with a change in designation.
"I continually noted in public and private meetings that we would only change the signs and stationary if it were converted to a park," says Mr. Huffman. "My selfish interests related to the psyche of the American people who I believe view a national park in a different category than a national monument that they frequently see as some marble oblique sitting in some open field. I believed, and still do, that the public will rise in support if a park is at risk, but may rise with less energy and commitment if a national monument is at risk. It was my strategy to raise every level of layered protection possible for those unique resources. Beyond my strategy, I firmly believe the resources deserve it."
From his view up in Glacier, Superintendent Cartwright touches on the key to "national park" status for Dinosaur.
“You need the communities and the delegations to be behind that effort,” he says simply, then adds, "I think park status for Dinosaur would be a very favorable thing.”
The river trip? That ended with several days of simply gorgeous weather: bright blue skies and warm temperatures. A typical Rocky Mountain spring.