Colorado River National Park

Utah today is home to five major national parks.

Zion is probably the most beautiful canyon on earth. It started life as we know it as Makuntuweep National Monument in 1909 (Taft carrying TRs legacy), and became a national park a decade later.

Bryce Canyon, which has birthed a thousand postcards, became a national monument in 1923, and a national park 5 years later.

Capitol Reef, with its amazing rivers a streams hidden in huge folds of stone, was created a national monument in 1937, mostly by local advocacy.  The Great Depression and WWII delayed funding, and it didn’t look like a national anything for many years to come.  In 1968 the monument was expanded significantly, right on the heels of the movement which created the Wilderness Act.  In 1971 it became a national park.

The massive complex that is Canyonlands became a national park in 1964, largely due to the adovocacy of the then superintendent of Arches, Bates Wilson.  Canyonlands grew substantially in 1971, adding the Maze District on the west side of the Green and Colorado Rivers, which is to this day the most remote national park land in the lower 48, with the possible exception of certain areas in North Cascades.

The iconic Arches, so much more human scale and thus intelligible, has been a national monument since 1929, and a park since 1971.


All this is ignoring the two neighboring and in most ways greater federal wildernesses of the Colorado Plateau: Escalante and Grand Canyon.  The first bill to create Grand Canyon National Park was introduced in 1882.  In 1903 TR said it “….was the one great sight every American should see.”  TR (pioneering the use of the Antiquities Act for such purposes) created it a national monument in 1908, and it became a national park in 1919.  Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was designated by Clinton in 1996, via unilateral proclamation under the Antiquities Act.  The circumstances were highly charged, and resulted in among other things Mr. Bill being burned in effigy on the grounds of the Escalante town school.


Map by National Geographic.

As can be seen above the Escalante River drains the heart of a swath of country carved by the Colorado River into a peerless landscape.  The areas encompassed by and connecting Grand Canyon to Zion to Bryce to Escalante to Capitol Reef to Canyonlands to Arches is remarkable.  The only thing more remarkable than the diversity is the unity which binds the place together.

Save mineral exploration it is not especially useful land, in the explicitly anthropocentric and exploitative ways in which that word is typically used.  Logging and cattle have done a number on the region, but the ruggedness has made this impact far less than it has been anywhere else in the lower 48.  The blank area on the above map, directly below and across the Fremont River from Factory Butte, is the Henry Mountains.  It was the last range named in the lower 48.  Before the 1930s, the area between I-15, I-70, the Arizona border, and the line running north to south between Moab and Blanding contained not a single paved road.  While the Colorado Plateau is now, in human time, irrevocably impacted, little is lost compared to other places.

In the 1930s proposals came from several sources, including Bob Marshall, to protect far greater areas in southern Utah.  The designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996 can be seen as the inevitable end of a 60+ year debate.  Indeed, not less partisan a source than the Deseret News said as much.  What is left is to include the San Rafael Swell, Robbers Roost, and San Juan/White and Dark Canyon areas in the complex.  Worthy areas all no one would argue.  The problem is rather with the arguments which have dominated federal land designation in Utah for the last half century, which is to say the debate which surrounds federal land designation in the west today.

For many reasons the administration of the National Park Service, and to a lesser but similar extent the Forest Service and BLM, is divorced from local sentiment.  Part of this is the arcane career track federal employment demands.  Part of this is inextricable from the virtue of federal administration: the ponderous pace of change which is insulated from the vicissitudes of the day.  This is essential, as preservation is inimicable to the hurly burly back and forth which will always be central to democratic government.  And part of it is that like so many agencies today, the BLM, FS, and especially the NPS lives its life under siege.  This has gone on so long that the consequent mentality has become part of the culture, and prevent the organization from making necessary concessions.

The NPS needs to make changes to survive.  This is one example.  Colorado River National Park, which will encompass the aforementioned land connecting Grand Canyon to Zion to Arches, will be another.

CRNP will embrace a broader and more inclusive model.  Certain areas, such as the Maze, Roost, Swell, and Escalante, will embrace wilderness and inaccessibility.  Certain areas, such as the White Rim, Needles, and much of Zion, will be more educational and accessible wilderness.  Certain areas will be opened to wider ATV travel, hunting, and even on a select basis firewood cutting for local residents.  Some uses, such as grazing and extraction, are more efficiently done elsewhere and will be forbidden.  Needless to say, Glen Canyon dam will be decommissioned.  The acrimony between National Parks and those who live near them needs to stop, and while the idea for a park on the Colorado Plateau is old, its time is not yet past.  The point of this, which would in many respects be little different than the current hodgepodge of agency management?  Continuity.  It would not occur overnight, but as this sort of preservation is forever long term steps for long term good should not be delayed, even if they’d create a lot of annoyance in the short term.

2 responses to “Colorado River National Park”

  1. […] We made it through the 30s doing plenty of damage (building roads across Glacier NP and southern Utah; for example, both previously roadless), but survived that and the interstate highway boom of he […]

  2. […] to Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and the surrounding places which ought to be included in the overall conversation.  Since then it has been a slow march to arrive at where we are today, a process whose pauses and […]

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