In the National Parks: The Enemies of Canyonlands

Canyonlands sign

(photo by dassel)

Canyonlands National Park

(Photo by beccarobison)

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.

Canyonlands National Park

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.

The Needles

(Photo by skeeze)

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.

A Road Less Traveled

Canyonlands National Park

(Photo by Rauschenberger)

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.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands arch

(Photo by Alan Rither)

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19 Responses to In the National Parks: The Enemies of Canyonlands

  1. One of the most beautiful places in the entire U.S. Ken. I don’t know if this form will let me link out, but the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance ( is helping fight the good fight in these areas.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. If work wasn’t getting in the way….sigh. I am yet to visit Utah for its beauty. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. M.B. Henry says:

    One of my favorite National Parks. Lovely photos and very informative write up. It pains me to see these lands shrunk and or destroyed.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Kire says:

    How upset did you become researching and writing this Ken?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ken Dowell says:

      There’s Zinke and then there’s Pruitt and there’s DeVoss and Clueless Ben. Just one after another. You would think you’d get a little callous to it by now, but nope, as you might expect, I was outraged.

      Liked by 4 people

  5. U.S. public lands should be treated like the American version of the Crown Jewels — like the national treasures that they are.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. pjlazos says:

    Ah, now I’m on terra firm. About 20 or so years ago, my husband and I took a camping trip to Utah and stayed in each of Utah’s National Parks. The diversity was unbelievable — no two of them are even remotely alike — and it felt about as close to heaven as you could get. While in Canyon Lands, we were told to drive our jeep in the creek beds in certain areas as that was the safest way to travel between the park’s breathtaking monuments. They even gave you a map, and Angel Arch was on the route, taking us through the creek bed in certain places. (Yes, I hang my head in shame, but this was per instruction of the National Park Service and who was I to argue?) I even have a picture somewhere of our jeep up to the bumper in water as we drove through. At that time it was all very thrilling and I didn’t know as much about stream conservation as I do now. Then it was just the way things were done. Today, after 27 years of being an environmental lawyer, 17 of them working in water, I would certainly push back and ask for another route. Perhaps we are finally evolving as a species because people are fighting for these treasures rather than taking them for granted. Thank you for this post, Ken.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. This saddens me so much as someone with a deep connection to visiting national parks. All hail coal and oil… not 😦

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Donna Janke says:

    I’ve not visited Canyonlands National Park, but it does indeed look breathtaking. I hope its beauty remains. As a Canadian, I’ve been struck by the joy, pride, and reverence the people of the U.S. have for their national parks. I would have thought preserving them would be sacrosanct.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Pingback: In the National Parks: The Enemies of Canyonlands – SEO

  10. It’s for sure a breathtaking place. Very beautiful. I wish to be able to visit it some day. Thank you for the pictures and information, Ken.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Pingback: The Enemies of Canyonlands – Nomad Advocate

  12. Oh, Man, where is your reason?

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Henry Lewis says:

    America’s National Park system is an irreplaceable treasure that’s renowned world-wide, but is severely underfunded. These lands that belong to all are under attack like never before by the Trump administration. Let’s hope those who care more about the future rather than short-term personal financial gain win this battle.

    Liked by 1 person

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