Canyonlands National Park is a breathtaking sight. The photos accompanying this blog post are an indication of the unique geologic formations and natural beauty of the park. Yet it has its detractors. As a relatively new national park, founded in 1964, it was created only after a long fight. Canyonlands is a prime example of the conflict that has always been a part of the creation of the national parks system. That conflict involves, on the one hand, the naturalists and conservationists who want to preserve these lands in their natural state and make them available for all Americans to enjoy. On the other hand are the commercial interests who want access to the territory in order to make a profit by exploiting the available natural resources, generally fossil fuels.
Utah is home to five national parks. That is a fact that is proudly touted by those who promote tourism to the state. But not so much by the Republican dominated state house and legislature. And they now have a like-minded administration in Washington.
Attempts in Washington to preserve the canyons area near the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers date back to 1936 when Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes proposed the creation of Escalante National Monument in the area. The proposal went nowhere, due to a combination of opposition by commercial interests and ultimately the distraction of war.
Another Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, took up the cause in the early 1960’s. He ran into the opposition of Utah’s Republican Governor George Dewey Clyde. Clyde saw the inevitability of what would become Canyonlands but he sought to minimize its impact by working with Utah’s Republican Senator Wallace F. Bennett to try to shrink the amount of land that would be included and to make it a “mixed-use park” meaning it would be available for hunting, mining and ranching. The National Park Act of 1916 proscribed all of those activities.
Between 1961 and 1964, a number of bills were introduced by Utah’s other senator, Frank Moss, a Democrat, to create Canyonlands. He compromised on the size of the park, the activities that would be allowed there and changed the boundaries of the proposed park to exclude mineral-rich land and replace it with territory with no perceived commercial value. After several failures, Moss eventually had a compromise bill passed by the Senate in 1963. But when it went to the Democrat-controlled House, the mixed-use provisions were struck down. With some minor compromises, it was the House version of the bill that was finally approved in 1964 and signed into law by Lyndon Johnson.
More recently, the National Park Service and supporting conservationist organizations found themselves in a protracted legal battle with the State of Utah and San Juan County over the use of a pathway in the park by motor vehicles. The area is question is the Salt Creek, which is the only perennial waterway in Canyonlands other than the Green and Colorado rivers. It had been used by some recreational vehicles as a pathway to the Angel Arch, one of Canyonlands iconic geologic formations.
Citing environmental damage and threats to area wildlife the Park Service at first limited vehicular use of this pathway and then in 2004 closed it entirely to motorized vehicles. The county and the state sued the park service under an 1866 law that was enacted to allow settlers to build roads across public lands. That law, RS 2477, had been repealed by Congress, but it grandfathered established rights of way. A Utah District Court ruled that there was not sufficient evidence of 10 years of continuous use as a roadway, which is what Utah law requires. for an RS 2477 claim. The decision was appealed and it was ten years later, in 2014 that the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court ruling and thus kept the Salt Creek closed to vehicular traffic.
During the creation of Canyonlands, supporters of the national parks in Washington offset the local and state politicians who were often beholden to commercial interests in their state in order to first establish and then support Canyonlands National Park. The current administration in Washington is far different than its predecessors, No one will even confuse Ryan Zinke with Harold Ickes or Stewart Udall.
Zinke was a Republican congressman from Montana who, in running for that office, once referred to Hilary Clinton as the anti-Christ. On his first day in office as Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Interior he rescinded a rule banning the use of lead bullets in National Wildlife Refuges that had been adopted by the Fish and Wildlife Service to prevent lead contamination of plants and animals. He then set out on a study to see which national monuments could be reduced in size. That resulted in recommendations to diminish Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, both in Utah, Cascade-Siskiyou in southern Oregon and northwestern California and Gold Butt in Nevada.
By executive order, Trump shrunk the two Utah properties, Bears Ears by 85% and Grand Staircase by 46%. Interior Department documents recently obtained by the New York Times show that the primary motivation for shrinking these national monuments was the potential for extracting coal and oil. (Oil and coal drove Trump’s call to Shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase)
The documents also show the role Utah’s Republican Senator Orin Hatch played in bringing about this reduction in public lands. He had provided Zinke a proposed redraw of the national monuments’ boundaries that was largely adopted by Trump in his executive offer. So the Utah GOP, which has consistently fought against the creation of national parks in Utah and has sought to shrink them, now has some allies in the White House and the Interior Department.