From Bowns Point, at the southeastern rim of the 11,000-foot-high Aquarius Plateau, you can see out over the landscape of southern Utah with the perspective of an Olympian god. In every direction the land falls away in thousand-foot leaps, dropping a vertical mile before finally losing itself in a chaos of mesas, buttes, cliff-walls, terraces, domes, amphitheaters, hogbacks, and canyons. Gigantic landforms rise off that desert floor. To the south, a cliff-wall 2,000 feet high and 50 miles long -- the northern edge of the Kaiparowits Plateau -- points like a semaphore at 10,000-foot-high Navajo Mountain. To the east, the purple domes of the Henry Mountains hover above the mesas and badlands which surround them. A 1,000-foot-high hogback called the Waterpocket Fold shoots across the field of view from south to north, its jagged crestline running straight as an arrow for nearly 100 miles. Forty miles away to the northeast, you can see the 35-mile-wide dome called the San Rafael Swell. Closer at hand lies a 100,000-acre amphitheater ringed by the thousand-foot-high Circle Cliffs. Still closer, to the south and southeast, lies the labyrinthine canyon system of the Escalante River.

A Landscape in Equilibrium

The Colorado Plateau is a physiographic "province," a region distinct from other parts of the West. Originally named the "Colorado Plateaus" by explorer John Wesley Powell, the "Plateau" is in fact a huge basin ringed by highlands and filled with plateaus. Sprawling across southeastern Utah, northern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and western Colorado, the Colorado Plateau province covers a land area of 130,000 square miles. Of America's 50 states, only Alaska, Texas, California, and Montana are larger.

What lay and upreared and hid beyond that level of rangeland was the thing that changed Sue's gaze. It was the canyon country of Utah. Long she had heard of it, and now it seemed to spread out before her, a vast shadowy region of rock -- domes, spurs, peaks, bluffs, reaching escarpments, lines of cleavage, endless scalloped marching rocks; and rising rising grandly out of that chaos of colored rock the red-walled black-tipped flat-topped mountain that was Wild Horse Mese.

Zane Grey
Wild Horse Mesa (1924)

Geologically, the Colorado Plateau is perhaps best defined by what did not happen to it. While the Rocky Mountains to the east and the basin and range country to the west were being thrust, stretched, and fractured into existence, the Colorado Plateau remained structurally intact.

"The Colorado Plateau is extremely ancient," says author F.A. Barnes, an expert on the region's geology. "As a distinct mass of continental crust, it is at least 500 million years old -- probably a lot older." Such longevity is especially impressive when one considers the globetrotting adventures of the North American continent from the perspective of continental drift theory. Over a period of 300 to 400 million years, while the North American continent inched northward from the South Pole, gradually disengaging itself from Africa, Asia, and South America, the Colorado Plateau region drifted along comfortably on its western edge. Now shoreline, now inundated by rising seas, the entire region accumulated huge quantities of sediment, gradually sinking under its own weight until heat and pressure hardened the deposits into a mantle of sedimentary rock several miles thick. Even when the entire western United States began to rise some 10 million years ago, eventually climbing to elevations as much as three miles above sea level, the Colorado Plateau region remained stable -- perhaps "floating" on a cushion of molten rock.

Though volcanic eruptions ring its perimeter, few have penetrated the interior of the Colorado Plateau. Blocked by massive layers of sedimentary rock, rising magma could do no more than bulge its thick roof into domes -- the "laccolithic" Henry, La Sal, and Abajo mountain ranges -- before cooling and hardening in place. The tremendous tectonic forces which formed the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains had far less effect on the Colorado Plateau. Shielded or cushioned by something deep in the earth, the Plateau mirrored those forces but dimly -- as broad, dome-shaped uplifts, shallow basins, and long folds or "reefs."

As provinces go, the Colorado Plateau is therefore a rugged individualist. While its neighbors have succumbed either to uplift or erosion, the Plateau held those forces in equilibrium. Even as its landscape continues to rise with the thrust of the continent, erosion is simultaneously wearing it down.

The Vast and the Intimate

Riddle, paradox, and anomaly are the Plateau's stock-in-trade. A structural and topographic depression, the entire region has been uplifted more than a mile. A desert, it contains two of the continent's largest rivers, and channels enough water to supply millions of people in four western states. Its landscape is a conjugation of the vertical and the horizontal; its landforms, a debate between hard and soft rock. It is a world of sudden displacements and bizarre juxtapositions. Separated only by cliff-walls, subarctic tundra and Sonoran desert are neighbors on the Colorado Plateau. Snow-capped mountains rise improbably off the desert floor, each carrying its arctic-alpine biota like the cargo of an ark. Among petrified sand dunes are deep pools of water; on burning cliff-faces, luxurious flower gardens hide in alcoves, watered by springs.

Perpetually carved by erosion, the canyon lands of the Colorado Plateau are one of the most intricate landscapes on earth. Consider a single canyon system -- that of the Escalante River and its sidecanyons -- which comprise a network of nearly one thousand miles. Yet the Escalante is itself but a sidecanyon -- one of 50 major sidecanyon systems tributary to the Colorado and Green rivers. To borrow a term recently coined by mathematicians, the landscape is "fractal;" no matter how closely you examine or how thoroughly you explore it, its complexity remains infinite. You could spend a lifetime in the Escalante without fully exploring it; yet a single week there can exhaust the mind with its diversity, its fusion of the vast and the intimate.

Bowl, basin, canyon, alcove. Everywhere the land is concave. Hidden within this huge river basin are bowls within bowls: the Canyonlands Basin, the interior of the San Rafael Swell, the Circle Cliffs amphitheater, the Escalante River basin, the paradoxical salt valleys near Moab. From nearly any vantage point the land drops away only to rise again far in the distance. This concave structure, coupled with the lack of screening vegetation, the gigantic scale of the landforms, and the clarity of the air, makes for vistas of breathtaking hugeness. Yet the same features create intimacy as well. There is always a feeling of being enclosed, surrounded, sheltered. Magnified in the crystalline air, distant objects seem deceptively close -- a compression of space neatly balanced by an equal and opposite expansion of time. That butte may seem close enough to hit with a stone -- but if it lies on the opposite side of a sheer-walled canyon, it could take you days to reach it on foot.

Suspended in Time

The Plateau is the world's foremost museum of earth history. To descend into its canyons is to experience history in reverse. Each layer of rock represents an earlier epoch on the calendar of geological time. Scattered through these layers one can find fossil life-forms that span the history of evolution between single-celled life and the dinosaur. At a single quarry, in Dinosaur National Monument, scientists have uncovered the bones of 300 dinosaurs representing 10 different species. More recent relics lie hidden in time-pockets such as Cowboy Cave, where scientists have found the dung of extinct camel, mammoth, and sloth, all buried beneath human artifacts nearly 7,000 years old.

Even living creatures in this strange landscape may hang suspended in time. Cryptobiotic life forms -- half alive and half dead -- can lie dormant in dry potholes for as long as 25 years, patiently waiting for rain. There are juniper trees 1,000 years old, and bristlecone pines that were 1,000 years old at the dawn of the Christian era. Hidden in basins and canyons, cut off by cliffs and desert, the biota of the Colorado Plateau is as diverse as the landscape itself. Nearly 80 species of fish and 340 species of plants are endemic, and the region hosts more than 80 plants listed or recommended for protection as threatened or endangered species.

Here too, also frozen in time, lie the remains of 12,000 years of human occupation, spanning the entire temporal range of human prehistoric development from the Paleo-Indian culture to the modern Pueblo Indians. The civilization of the Anasazi, which mysteriously disappeared around 1300 A.D., left behind one of the richest archeological treasure-troves on the planet. Scattered throughout the canyons and mesas of the Colorado Plateau are thousands of prehistoric stone structures -- granaries, pit-houses, cliffhouses, kivas, watchtowers -- entire cities of stone. In parts of southeastern Utah the archeological site density is as high as 80 sites per square mile. In San Juan County alone, there are 15,000 known archeological sites, a mere 10 percent of the estimated total number.

A Textbook of Geomorphology

Asked by the National Park Service to identify potential "Natural Landmarks" on the Colorado Plateau, two tems of geologists returned with a list of no fewer than 110 sites which deserve national recognition as classic displays of geologic phenomena.

The landscape itself holds history frozen in stone. There are petrified sand dunes and ripple marks, inverted valleys, entrenched river meanders, and whole forests of petrified trees. Asked by the National Park Service to identify potential "Natural Landmarks" on the Colorado Plateau, two teams of geologists returned with a list of no fewer than 110 sites which deserve national recognition as classic displays of geologic phenomena. "In no other province in America," they explained, "are the relationships between morphology and geology more clearly or graphically revealed."

Consider, for example, the work of erosion. There are thousands of miles of canyons on the Colorado Plateau, and every one of those miles is a hoard of erosional sculptures. There are alcoves, grottoes, potholes, pouroffs, plunge basins, and rincons. There are windows and towers, cliff-walls riddled with honeycombing or pitted with conchoidal fractures. Above the rims of the canyons one finds retreating cliff-walls hundreds of miles long, each leaving behind it a landscape strewn with gigantic erosional remnants. There are at least 25 major plateaus, hundreds of mesas, thousands of buttes, domes, towers, monuments, temples, spires. There are whole valleys filled with stone hoodoos and goblins. Far out in the desert, one can find solitary monoliths and preposterous balanced rocks.

There are thousands of natural stone arches and bridges on the Colorado Plateau, at least five with spans of more than 200 feet.

The Colorado Plateau harbors some of the world's most spectacular volcanic formations, including laccolithic mountain ranges, arrow-straight dikes, and expanses strewn with obsidian and volcanic bombs.

There are badlands, sand dunes, painted deserts . . .

All this, and one thing more.

The Colorado Plateau is wilderness. It is a remnant of the American frontier, a place where even contemporary human history hangs suspended in time. Just 50 years ago Wilderness Society founder Robert Marshall identified the region surrounding the Colorado River canyons in southeastern Utah as the single largest roadless area in the coterminous United States. In all, Marshall found 20 million acres in six huge roadless areas on the Plateau. And though mineral exploration has reduced the size of those roadless areas, the region still remains one of the largest blocks of undeveloped land in the West.

Parks and Wilderness

Americans love this strange landscape of stone. Since the turn of the century they have travelled from every corner of the nation to visit it. Between 1900 and 1972, the federal government created 23 national parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, and national landmarks on the Colorado Plateau. Today those parks are among the most popular in America. In 1988, the Park Service recorded 24 million visits to national parks on the Colorado Plateau, and in recent years visitation to the Plateau's national park lands has been increasing at a rate of nine percent per year -- a rate 36 times greater than that of all national parks.

The vast tourist potential of the Colorado Plateau is largely unrealized because reliance on the traditional industries of the region -- energy, cattle, forest products, mining and agriculture -- has obscured in large measure the potential of the Plateau as a world-class tourist destination.

Kent Briggs
The High Frontier (1976)

Unfortunately, the National Park System protects only 5 million acres -- barely seven percent of the land area of the Colorado Plateau. The Plateau's national parks are islands of protected land surrounded by publicly owned wild lands which remain open to development. There are several large Indian reservations and small holdings of state and private lands at the wild core of the Colorado Plateau. But most of the lands which surround the Plateau's national parks are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

No one knows exactly how much land remains wild on the Plateau. Definitions of wilderness vary, and the nationwide wilderness inventories by federal agencies are far from complete. But recent studies by environmental groups suggest that there are at least 10 million acres of BLM, Park Service, and Forest Service lands which meet the criteria for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Park Plans

Roads, jeep trails, and seismic lines can be found within this wilderness core. Yet most such impacts are trivial in comparison to the huge tracts of roadless land which surround them. Many roadless areas at the heart of the Plateau are contiguous with the national parks or with other roadless areas, separated from one another by no more than a single dirt road. Thus the core of the Colorado Plateau Province today remains one wilderness. And for at least half of this century, Americans have been fighting to keep it that way.

The first such initiative came in 1936, when the National Park Service announced a proposal to create a new national monument of 4.5 million acres in southeastern Utah. The proposal won enthusiastic support from Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and the endorsement of Utah State Planning Board Chairman Ray West, but it was defeated by politicians who favored development. Between 1935 and 1961, a fleet of ambitious protection plans foundered against the same opposition. The proposals included a Wayne County National Park of 365,000 acres, a Four Corners National Monument, a Rainbow Plateau or Navajo Plateau National Monument, an Arch Canyon National Monument, and an original Canyonlands National Park proposal of over 1,000 square miles.

The Grand Plan

By the mid 1960s, however, the developers were formulating a Colorado Plateau master plan of their own. Conceived by a coalition of 21 utility companies, it quickly became known as "the Grand Plan" (Gottlieb and Wiley, 1982, p. 42). The idea was simple and powerful. To supply the water and energy needs of the great cities that ring the Intermountain West, the Colorado Plateau would become their natural resource colony and waste dump. Coal mined on the plateau would be burned in huge new coal-fired power plants whose polluting emissions could be expelled across the uninhabited wilderness at the heart of the Plateau. A string of hydroelectric dams on the Colorado and Green rivers would supply water and power to Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

To supply the water and energy needs of the great cities that ring the Intermountain west, the Colorado Plateau would become their natural resource colony and waste dump. Coal mined on the plateau would be burned in huge new coal-fired power plants whose polluting emissions could be expelled across the uninhabited wilderness at the heart of the plateau. A string of hydro-electric dams on the Colorado and Green rivers would supply water and power to Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

The oil embargo and energy crisis of the 1970s pushed the Grand Plan into overdrive. Additional electricity would be generated in nuclear power plants located along the Green River. Oil, natural gas, tar sand, and oil shale would be developed throughout the Colorado Plateau. Uranium, mined and milled on the Plateau, would supply nuclear power plants throughout the nation, after which it would return to the Plateau for permanent storage in a high-level nuclear waste repository. For developers, as for conservationists, the Colorado Plateau had become the final frontier.

Nationwide Issue

There have been at least 10 major confrontations between developers and conservationists on the Colorado Plateau. The first came in 1956, when conservationists waged a successful nationwide campaign to prevent the construction of a dam within Dinosaur National Monument.

Conservationists lost their second round with the Grand Plan, when in 1963, water began rising behind Glen Canyon Dam, inundating 183 miles of stunningly beautiful canyons at the heart of the Colorado Plateau. Unlike Dinosaur National Monument, Glen Canyon had little national recognition; it was "The Place No One Knew." For conservationists the lesson was clear. Only a nationwide campaign could protect the scenic wonders of the Colorado Plateau from destructive development.

The damming of Glen Canyon proved the exception to the rule. For the following 20 years -- straight through the energy crisis and the mining booms of the late 1960s and 1970s -- environmentalists won battle after battle on the Colorado Plateau, and public outcry stymied development. In 1966, conservationists prevented the construction of two dams in the Grand Canyon. In 1976 they prevailed against a proposed coal mine and power plant on the Kaiparowits Plateau. In 1979 they forced the relocation of the proposed Intermountain Power Project to a site off the Plateau. They defeated the proposed Trans-Escalante highway in 1979, the proposed Warner Valley power plant near Zion National Park and the proposed Alton coal strip mine in 1980. In 1984, backed by Utah Governor Scott Matheson and two-to-one support in statewide opinion polls, Utah conservationists defeated a proposal to build a nuclear waste dump next to Canyonlands National Park. Asked to choose between development and preservation, Americans, the federal government, and Utahns themselves repeatedly chose preservation for the Plateau.

At the publication of this book, mineral exploration and production have virtually ceased on the Colorado Plateau -- a clear indication that the Plateau's mineral resources are of marginal value to the nation and the world. For the next few years, perhaps even longer, there may be a reprieve from the "Grand Plan."

New technologies, both in energy production and conservation, will one day replace the use of fossil fuels. But when? Energy prices are again on the rise, and will probably continue to rise for the foreseeable future. At today's prices energy development is not economically viable on the Colorado Plateau. At tomorrow's prices, it may once again boom.

That is but one reason (and there are many others) why the scenic wonders of the Colorado Plateau, without formal protection, will be greatly at risk in the future. Recognizing that risk, Utahns have in recent years redoubled their efforts to achieve national recognition for the Plateau.

Protecting a Region

In the early 1970s, Utah writer Ward Roylance launched a campaign to develop a preservation plan for the entire Colorado Plateau. A former Utah Travel Council employee and author of the popular guidebook, Utah, A Guide to the State, Roylance had spent a lifetime exploring the wild lands of southern Utah. The entire region, he declared, was an "Enchanted Wilderness" whose public domain lands should be managed "not as a shattered entity broken up into political subdivisions, but rather as an integral, homogeneous wilderness." Recreation and "controlled travel," Roylance wrote, were the "highest uses" of this land, and "a few dozen national parks and monuments . . . will not suffice in this region for the future." What was needed, he wrote, was a "major campaign . . . to save the entire region though formal planning and zoning."

By 1985, Roylance's visionary ideas had percolated up to the highest levels of Utah State government. In January, 1985, Utah Governor Scott Matheson announced a proposal to request World Heritage List designation for key sites on the Colorado Plateau. A 167-page report, published in June, 1986, detailed the governor's proposal. "Because of the tremendous variety of land forms and ecosystems," the report explained, "no one park or wilderness area can effectively represent the Colorado Plateau." The study recommended World Heritage List designation for 67 national and state parks, monuments, and recreation areas.

"Utah's five national parks are part of a much larger whole," explains Rod Millar, co-author of the report. "The parks are islands in a sea of land down there -- but they're not separate, isolated entities. They are part of a larger whole, and what connects them is the land which surrounds them. Maybe our geopolitical systems won't allow for a complete integration of these isolated entities, but World Heritage List nomination is a step in that direction."

If Millar is correct, and our "geopolitical systems" won't allow for "complete integration," then perhaps we should change our systems -- or our thinking. That radical notion comes not from environmentalists, but from Dr. Phillip Burgess, president of a Denver think-tank called the Center for the New West. The Center was established in 1989 with joint sponsorship from U.S. West Communications and the Western Governor's Association.

Tourism Potential

In 1987 Burgess and Kent Briggs, a former aide to Matheson, co-authored a study of the economic future of the Colorado Plateau. While the purpose of the study was to promote economic development, its recommendations were far closer to Roylance's "Enchanted Wilderness" than to the "Grand Plan." Prosperity for the region, argued the authors, will not come from mining or energy development but from tourism.

"The rich raw materials of the plateau have not produced a stable economic base," explains Burgess. "The depressed markets for energy, minerals, food and fiber have resulted in high unemployment and the emptying out of an area that already has less than two people per square mile." By contrast, says Briggs, "the vast tourism potential of this region offers the promise of a stable, long term growth industry."

Central to this vision is the notion that a tourism-centered economy would "rearrange the hierarchy of desired development."

"Each development would have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis depending on how it affected the tourism resource," says Burgess. "Certainly the high level nuclear waste repository that was once proposed for siting near Canyonlands Park would be a classic example of a `non-conforming use."

Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall advanced a similar idea in the 1960s. He envisioned a "Golden Circle" of national parks in Utah, Colorado, and Arizona, linked by paved highways. The unspoiled scenery inside the circle would be left alone -- to attract tourists to the existing communities, where development would be concentrated.

In essence, the proposal by Burgess and Briggs is but the latest reiteration of what Utah conservationists have been saying for at least 50 years. The natural wonders of the Colorado Plateau are a priceless asset, and their protection will require a region-wide protection plan for the entire Colorado Plateau.

The Role of Wilderness Designation

"Utah's natural beauty is its most important economic asset," says Utah Congressman Wayne Owens. To protect that asset -- and to protect the region's beauty for its own sake -- Owens has vigorously supported wilderness designation for the BLM wild lands that surround Utah's national parks. "There is substantial evidence," Owens explains, "that progressive federal wilderness designations may indeed be the single most important economic opportunity available to Southern Utah."

In March 1989, with the introduction of H.R. 1500, Congressman Owens endorsed the principle underlying the Utah Wilderness Coalition's proposal: the preservation of the BLM wild lands which lie between -- and connect -- the national parks at the heart of the Colorado Plateau.

Economic benefit, large though it is, will not in the end be the highest reason for preserving the wild lands of the Colorado Plateau. Silence, beauty, vastness, solitude, challenge, wonder, mystery, unspoiled natural systems -- a link with our past which spirals through eons of geologic time to the beginning of life on earth. Those are the real treasures of the Colorado Plateau, and it is those treasures, far more than economics, which must inspire the hope that the Plateau Province will remain in the future what it has been for 500 million years -- serenely and splendidly intact.

Ray Wheeler