Southern Utah's redrock landscape is wondrous, a spectacular collection of lands in various stages of deconstruction and reconstruction. While some of that landscape has been protected in the form of national parks, some groups believe more needs that type of protection.
While between them Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Arches national parks and nearby Glen Canyon National Recreation Area encompass more than 1.9 million acres, there's at least 1.4 million acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management property surrounding Canyonlands alone that need stronger protection, according to the Grand Canyon Trust and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
The groups are promoting petitions that asks the White House and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to take action to protect these landscapes from rampant off-road vehicle use and heavy industrial use.
The SUWA petition asks the administration to "bar off-road vehicle use on 1,050 miles of ORV routes in sensitive habitat, in streams, wetlands, riparian areas, archaeological sites and other vulnerable areas until it can conduct further studies on the impacts of the activity and determine whether it is, in fact, a sustainable use."
Such a ban would leave open another 1,400 miles of ORV routes within the area addressed by the petition, according to SUWA, and "about 13,000 miles of routes open in the four BLM field offices surrounding Greater Canyonlands."
At the Grand Canyon Trust, the organization is producing a film that shows off the lands in the region surrounding Canyonlands National Park, lands the trust says are "currently threatened by oil and gas drilling, potash and uranium extraction, tar sands strip-mining and unregulated off-road vehicle impacts."
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.
According to the Grand Canyon Trust, "the vast unprotected landscape surrounding the park has been viewed as a dumping ground or sacrifice zone for industrial and extractive uses instead of a national treasure rivaling the Grand Canyon."
"In 1980 the Department of Energy proposed siting a nuclear waste repository at the borderlands of the park and, the following year, exploration for tar sands development began west of the Canyonlands Basin. Six years of lobbying by the National Park Service, the State of Utah, and others opposing the proposed nuclear waste repository eventually eliminated the Davis Canyon site from consideration and inspired then Utah Congressman Wayne Owens to work with the National Parks Conservation Association to propose adding 500,000 to 750,000 acres to the park.
"At that time, as today, there was no support from the Utah congressional delegation to expand protective designations across these federal lands, which belong to all people of the United States. Asa result, they remain open for industrial development."
While President Obama, or any future president, could protect the landscape by designating national monuments under the Antiquities Act, there currently are efforts under way to take that authority away from the White House. Today, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, has introduced the Utah Land Sovereignty Act, which would prevent presidents from designating national monuments in Utah.
To gain support for protecting these lands, the Trust and SUWA have been driving efforts to bring public pressure on the White House and Interior Department to take steps to protect them.
The White House has a new petition site called “We the People” and a Greater Canyonlands petition is now posted there. If the petition gains 5,000 signatures by November 2 (it currently has only about 700), the White House will have to respond to the petition on the website, according to the Trust.
At SUWA, officials are promoting their own petition, which asks President Obama "to do everything in your power to protect the Greater Canyonlands region -- the 1.4 million acres of BLM land surrounding Canyonlands National Park..."