From the lip of Grand View Point, an immense ruddy landscape in a constant state of decay sweeps before your eyes. And yet, though you're in the heart of Canyonlands National Park, not all you see is within the park. And for many, that's a problem that should have been corrected long ago.
Step into Canyonlands, whether via the Island in the Sky, the Needles, or the Maze districts, and you enter perhaps the most rugged backcountry park in the Lower 48. Though it covers just 337,598 acres in southeastern Utah, or less than one-seventh the landscape of 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone National Park, Canyonlands feels much larger. You get that impression striding between the tawny minarets of the Needles District, looking across the canyon-cut tabletop that sprawls below Grand View Point, or gazing up at the sandstone cliffs as you buck the rapids of the Colorado as its speeds on towards Lake Powell.
But this tableau of red-rock country has never lived up to the expectations of those who set their eyes on the landscape and saw not a wasteland but rather a cataclysm of earth, water, and sky that should be protected and enjoyed as a national park. As early as 1936, 28 years before the park was actually created, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes envisioned an "Escalante National Monument" of nearly 4.5 million acres, a behemoth that would encompass a good deal of Utah's southeastern corner south of Green River and east of Torrey. Not until the 1960s did the idea of a national park in this corner of Utah return, and it led, after much horse-trading, to a 257,000-acre Canyonlands National Park that was created in 1964.
But the creation of Canyonlands, which grew a bit through the years with the addition of the Horseshoe Canyon annex, didn't settle the debate over exactly how big the park should be. It was revived most recently in the late 1980s by the National Parks Conservation Association, and again in the early 1990s when then-Superintendent Walt Dabney endorsed "completing" the park by stretching its boundaries to the surrounding rims of the basin created by the Colorado and Green rivers. But in highly conservative Utah, where many resent the federal government's land ownership in large part because they see it as an impediment to economic development, the movement to enlarge Canyonlands has never gathered much steam.
The issue resurfaces now because an honors class at the University of Utah recently compiled a report that tracks the history of Canyonlands and the past completion efforts, looks at the current economic lay of the land, and suggests "new models for collaboration and the creation of a new Canyonlands National Preserve surrounding the existing park and managed by the Park Service. The approach to 'completing' Canyonlands would help ensure the park's integrity while also allowing for dialogue and flexibility in making future management decisions."
Is this the right time to revisit this issue? Politically, it's likely a no-starter, as Utah's congressional delegation was highly critical the other day when word broke that Interior Department officials were looking over a list of Western landscapes that might be justifiably suitable for protection as national monuments.
But let's put politics aside for the sake of discussion and see what's at stake. Currently, as noted above, Canyonlands covers 337,598 acres. A "completed" Canyonlands would span nearly 800,000 acres. What's to complete? If you look at the accompanying photo taken through Mesa Arch atop the Island in the Sky, off in the distance you can see the basin rim. Not all of the landscape between the arch and that rim lies within the national park. The resulting problems range from an ecologically fragmented park and incursions by off-road vehicles coming in via other public lands to the possibility of oil and gas drilling rigs standing on the park's borders.
"The simplest way to explain it," said Canyonlands Superintendent Kate Cannon, "is if we were able to expand to the rim of the basin, we’d have entire watersheds instead of partial. And watersheds are a management unit and an ecological unit in the desert that matters. So that’s the simplest thing. And watersheds of course, encompass geology, soils, water quantity and quality, the vegetation, and the organisms that are associated with those. So it’s, as a management principle, it’s easier to effectively manage a whole piece rather than parts.”
As far as off-road vehicles, right now there are numerous incursions each year into the park via U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands that lie within the basin but outside the park, the superintendent said.
"With the huge proliferation in the numbers and reach of all-terrain vehicles, we’re faced with lands that are much more open to those uses surrounding us, with washes and two-track roads that lead across the unmarked boundary into Canyonlands, the often unmarked boundary," she said. “And it’s very difficult to try to make it clear to people that they can’t cross that boundary and ride their vehicles into the park, and we can’t patrol the boundary effectively all the time to deal with ATVs. So if we had a more obvious boundary on the ground, it would be easier to police and much easier to inform the public of where they can and can’t go.”
A decade ago, in an article for National Parks, the magazine of the National Parks Conservation Association, the impacts of these incursions were cited as one reason why the park's boundaries should be pushed to the rim of the basin.
According to Bill Hedden, the Grand Canyon Trust's Moab representative, the ORV crowd with its go-anywhere attitudes has etched a "network of destruction" across the basin, creating a "bathtub ring around the park." Off-trail riding and related recreational activities disturb the fragile cryptobiotic soils that hold the desert ecosystem together, creating serious erosion problems. Plant loss from trampling compounds the problem. Jane Belnap, a local ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, explains that "soil erosion from these recreational activities is tremendous. The system is losing fertility faster than it is being replaced."
A decade later the problem remains, particularly from the Lockhart Basin and Indian Creek areas on the eastern side of the park, said Superintendent Cannon.
Other problems that could arise from the current layout of Park Service and BLM lands is that oil and gas exploration could be permitted on the BLM lands.
“You have potential oil and gas development over in the Lockhart Basin, you have a lot of activity with off-road vehicle use and road development down in the southeast area, down in Lavender Canyon and the Newspaper Rock area," said David Nimkin, NPCA's Southwest Region director. He adds that in sections of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which is located along the western border of Canyonlands and parts of which would be added to the national park under the completion proposal, there could be tar sands development along with oil and gas exploration.
“Part of the unique quality of Canyonlands is its desolation, and the just sheer wildness of it, and the prospect of increased human activity below the rim is part of what has motivated the completion idea for almost 50 years now," said Mr. Nimkin.
While the Park Service certainly could reach memorandums of understanding with the BLM not to allow such uses, said Mr. Nimkin, he added that such agreements are not as restrictive as "an act of Congress."
Evidence of that came late in 2008, when the outgoing Bush administration tried to ram through an auction of oil and gas exploration leases near neighboring Arches National Park. For years, noted Superintendent Cannon, local BLM officials would share with the Park Service lists of proposed leases to give the Park Service an opportunity to point to potential conflicts. That practice stopped abruptly in the fall of 2008, she recalled.
"That was a complete travesty. The BLM local folks for years have been working with us. They’d send out the oil and gas lease information well ahead of releasing it publicly, giving us a chance to talk to them and say, 'Hey, this one worries us, can you take it off the list?' and so on," she said. "And actually for 10 years they’ve been doing that, taking a lot of things off the list. And then in the rush -- I think of it as the Halloween mess. ... They sent us a list, which all looked fine to us, we commented back that it was, and then on Halloween they came out with a list that included dozens and dozens of tracts, including virtually all of the ones that BLM had deferred at our request over the last 10 years.
"And that wasn’t because our local guys messed up. ... Our local folks, who had the on-the-ground expertise, were faced with having to just crash as many oil and gas leases into that sale as they could. Those were their marching orders. And that’s why we got lease tracts that were in the middle of residential areas, that were on the golf course, and that were smack up above Arches National Park, right in the full view of the Windows and Delicate Arch and everything else.”
With the change in administrations, said Superintendent Cannon, the local Park Service and BLM officials once again are working together on leasing decisions.
In their completion report, the university students describe a "Canyonlands National Park and Preserve," with the added acreage falling under "preserve" status and which possibly would feature, as do some other national preserves within the National Park System, "management standards adjusted to accommodate hunting traditions and some motorized recreation activities."
"In our view, management policies for the new preserve lands should be established by utilizing a process similar to the successful negotiations that led to the 2009 Washington County (Utah) lands bill. Under this approach, a collaborative policy team should find sufficient flexibility to resolve conflicting uses in the new preserve, including hunting, rock climbing, OHV use, and potential energy and grazing leasing. In short, our proposed solution endorses a democratic process that recognizes multiple viewpoints and that keeps all stakeholders actively involved in an ongoing dialogue over resource management policy in the new preserve," the students wrote.
The Washington County bill was the result of bringing stakeholders together on how best to manage public lands in and surrounding Zion National Park. Part of the bill led to designation of more than 90 percent of Zion as official wilderness. At the same time, the sale of some BLM lands helped buy private inholdings in Zion, and the bill also contained provisions for how to manage Washington County's population growth and provided protections for roughly 165 miles of the Virgin River and its tributaries.
While the NPCA's Mr. Nimkin favors a similar approach to land management surrounding Canyonlands, he doesn't stand entirely behind the students' proposal.
"There are some uses and activities that could be considered and adjusted within the national park oversight. For example, down in the Dugout Ranch area (next to the park's Needles District) the interests that obviously the Nature Conservancy has -- still being able to maintain some of their grazing operations -- would probably be something that would be negotiated as part of a larger deal if that was included in the park boundaries," he said.
And while the NPCA could support rock climbing in an enlarged park, Mr. Nimkin said he's not sure oil and gas leasing or ATV opportunities would be appropriate.
"I think that the exercise that the students went through in the report highlights the importance of protecting the area, but their conclusions may not necessarily conform with our own," he said.
For now, talk of completing Canyonlands remains on the backburner. The Park Service, despite Mr. Dabney's efforts in the 1990s, is not pushing for it, and no member of the Utah congressional delegation is talking about it. But the question that lack of impetus raises is, how long will these areas be worth protecting within a national park?
"All around Canyonlands the motor vehicle use and the numbers of people coming in in all ways is increasing very significantly. And it’s so hard to go back," said Superintendent Cannon. "Once people establish a use, you almost lose your chance of rolling it back and protecting the lands against it. It’s too late. You’ve kind of opened Pandora’s box."