THE CANYONLANDS BASIN WILDERNESS
- Discovery -- 1859
- Discovery -- Today
- Rim to Rim: the Dream that Refuses to Die
- BLM Lands in the Canyonlands Basin
- Wilderness or Waste Dump?
- The BLM Excises Wilderness
- Mining Claims Motivate Exclusions
- SHAFER CANYON AND GOOSENECK UNITS
- INDIAN CREEK UNIT
- HARTS POINT UNIT
- BRIDGER JACK MESA UNIT
- BUTLER WASH UNIT
|From this point the view swept westward over a wide extent of country, in its general aspects a plain, but everywhere cut deeply by a tangled maze of canyons, and thickly set with towers, castles, and spires . . . the most wonderful monuments of erosion which our eyes, already experienced in objects of this kind, had beheld.
John S. Newberry
Discovery -- 1859On a blazing afternoon in the summer of 1859, a U.S. Army reconnaissance unit led by Captain John S. Macomb discovered the landscape that is now Canyonlands National Park. According to F.A. Barnes, who researched the history of the expedition, the explorers approached from the east, skirting the Abajo Mountains and making a precarious descent into the canyon today called Harts Draw. At its mouth the canyon opened like a doorway cut through the wall of the Orange Cliffs. Here Macomb and his men halted to marvel at the view. Before them lay a vast amphitheater ringed by towering cliffs, cut by deep canyons, and studded with stone monuments.
Expedition geologist John S. Newberry was struck by what he saw. "No language is adequate to convey a just idea of the strange and impressive scenery, he wrote in his official report. "Toward the west the view reached some thirty miles, there bounded by...walls similar to those behind us.... In every direction Newberry could see "columns, spires, castles, and battlement towers of colossal but often beautiful proportions.
Peering off to the southwest, Newberry could see "a long line of spires of white stone, standing on red bases, thousands in number, but so slender as to recall the most delicate carving in ivory.... The "Needles of Canyonlands National Park had made their debut.
Discovery -- TodayJust a few miles north of the Macomb expedition route, on a promontory called Needles Overlook, the BLM has built a viewing balcony at the brink of the Orange Cliffs. Twenty thousand tourists visit the overlook every year. For them, as for Captain Macomb, the first view of the Canyonlands Basin is an act of discovery. They stand gripping the rail, hair streaming back in the wind, like sailors on the bridge of a ship. Far below them the basin's redrock floor rolls away to its opposite wall, miles distant on the western horizon.
A century has passed since the Macomb expedition put Canyonlands on the map, yet its landscape remains virtually unchanged. And for at least half a century, Americans have been reaffirming their desire to keep it that way.
Rim to Rim: the Dream that Refuses to DieMore than 50 years ago, Wilderness Society founder Bob Marshall made an inventory of the nation's remaining roadless areas. Marshall identified a roadless area of 8.9 million acres centered over the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers -- the largest such area in the lower 48 states.
In 1936, the U.S. Department of the Interior tried to give substance to Bob Marshall's vision with a proposal to establish an Escalante National Monument of 4.5 million acres, reaching from Escalante to Moab, Utah, and spanning the Canyonlands Basin from rim to rim.
Powerful, development-minded opponents defeated the Escalante National Monument proposal. Yet nationwide support for protecting the canyonlands country continued to grow. In 1961 Interior Secretary Stewart Udall called for the creation of an 800,000-acre rim-to-rim Canyonlands National Park. Once again, would-be developers deflated the vision. When Congress finally established a Canyonlands National Park in 1964, it was a dim shadow of former proposals. At 257,000 acres, it contained barely one-third of Udall's park proposal, less than 6 percent of the proposed Escalante National Monument, and less than 3 percent of Bob Marshall's 9-million-acre roadless area.
BLM Lands in the Canyonlands BasinToday, along the eastern rim of the Canyonlands Basin, some 200,000 acres of wild lands remain outside the park, chiefly on BLM lands. These lands are the orphan children of the real Canyonlands National Park. Geographically, geologically, and esthetically, they are an integral part of the Canyonlands Basin and hold some of its finest attractions.
Northeast of the park lies the "Gooseneck, the famous hairpin turn in the Colorado River gorge that dominates the view from Dead Horse Point State Park. The Gooseneck is one of the most photographed features of the entire Canyonlands Basin. It is a river runner's doorway to Canyonlands National Park. Yet it remains outside the park boundary, and therefore is open to development.
Southeast of the Colorado River, along the eastern wall of the Canyonlands Basin, lies the Indian Creek roadless area. Indian Creek Canyon is the redrock fantasia that fills the view from Needles Overlook -- a wonderland of hoodoos, spires, and knobs. It is rich in archeological sites, and it provides critical habitat for a small but growing population of desert bighorn sheep. A popular hiking area, it offers overflow camping when the Park Service campground at Squaw flats is full. Indian Creek Canyon is as intriguing as any place within Canyonlands National Park, yet it, too, lies outside the park boundary.
Southeast of Indian Creek lies lovely Harts Draw, the route of the Macomb expedition. Graced with soaring natural bridges, a perennial stream, and abundant wildlife, Harts Draw complements Canyonlands National Park but, lacking formal protection, it is open for development.
Also excluded from the park are most of the familiar landmarks along its southeastern border, including Bridger Jack Mesa, Lavender and Davis canyons, and Sixshooter Peaks.
Farther south, at the headwaters of Indian Creek, the great forested island of Shay Mountain rises above the Needles district. Most of Shay Mountain lies on the Manti-La Sal National Forest and forms a 70,000-acre roadless area lacking formal protection. West of Shay Mountain, and due south of the park, are the colorful slickrock knolls and grassy parklands at the head of Salt Creek Canyon and Butler Wash.
Wilderness or Waste Dump?What does it matter where the protective boundary happens to fall? For Utahns concerned about the threat of a nuclear waste dump next to Canyonlands, it matters a great deal.
In 1984, the U.S. Department of Energy identified the mouth of Davis Canyon, just outside Canyonlands National Park, as one of the prime candidate sites for the nation's first high-level nuclear waste dump. A Salt Lake Tribune poll found that Utah residents opposed the siting of a nuclear waste dump near Canyonlands by a ratio of four to one. Soon after, Utah Governor Scott Matheson held a press conference to declare his opposition to the dump. The Davis Canyon site "can never be acceptable," Matheson told reporters, because of its proximity to Canyonlands National Park.
A nuclear waste dump in Davis Canyon would have totally transformed the landscape along the eastern border of the park, bringing a floodlit 640-acre compound, a commercial-grade truck haul road, and a powerline and railroad marching over the land. Of two alternative proposed routes for the railroad, one would have run for 30 miles along the base of the Orange Cliffs, tunneling directly under the Canyonlands and Needles Overlooks. The second route would have followed in the footsteps of the Macomb expedition, blasting down into Harts Draw by means of a tunnel and issuing from its mouth.
In January 1987, Utah Congressman Wayne Owens introduced legislation to expand Canyonlands National Park by over 400,000 acres, more than doubling its size. Owens' bill would add virtually all the BLM-managed wild lands along the eastern rim of the Canyonlands Basin, including the Gooseneck, Indian Creek Canyon, Harts Draw, Butler Wash, and the head of Salt Creek Canyon -- and the proposed nuclear waste dump sites in Davis and Lavender canyons. It was time, Owens explained, to pre-empt further discussion of a nuclear waste dump on lands that belonged within Canyonlands National Park.
|The Utah Wilderness Coalition proposal for the Canyonlands Basin is but the latest version of a dream shared by Utahns and canyonlands lovers all over the nation -- the dream of a rim-to-rim wilderness as pristine as it was when Captain John Macomb first laid eyes on it. Unfortunately, the BLM recommends |
The BLM Excises WildernessBut expanding the park will be a long, uncertain process, and meanwhile the BLM lands surrounding the park remain in jeopardy. To safeguard these lands, the Utah Wilderness Coalition is proposing that 162,100 acres of BLM wild lands next to Canyonlands be designated as wilderness. Such designation would protect those lands whether they are ever added to the park.
The Utah Wilderness Coalition proposal for the Canyonlands Basin is but the latest version of a dream shared by Utahns and canyonlands lovers all over the nation -- the dream of a rim-to-rim wilderness as pristine as it was when Captain John Macomb first laid eyes on it. Unfortunately, the wilderness recommendations of the BLM do not recognize that dream. The agency recommends against wilderness designation for three-quarters of the wild lands along the eastern rim of the Canyonlands Basin. Indeed, the BLM refused even to study the wilderness character of more than 70 percent of the BLM-managed wild lands bordering Canyonlands Park on the south and east.
During its wilderness inventory of 1979-80, the BLM rejected the entire roadless area surrounding Harts Draw as "clearly and obviously lacking wilderness character. Yet the jeep trails and seismic lines the BLM identified as "significant human impacts can easily be excluded by boundary adjustments around the perimeter of the unit, leaving 62,800 acres of wilderness at its core.
In similar fashion, the BLM omitted more than three-quarters of the Bridger Jack and Indian Creek roadless areas, and all of the Gooseneck roadless area, from wilderness study.
Mining Claims Motivate ExclusionsIn March 1985, Clive Kincaid, former BLM wilderness coordinator in Arizona, explained to the House Public Lands Subcommittee why so much wild land had been omitted from the BLM's wilderness inventory of the Canyonlands Basin. Kincaid had spent more than a year investigating the BLM inventory process and had made a case study of the Indian Creek wilderness inventory unit. There the BLM had originally eliminated the entire roadless area from its wilderness inventory, then reinstated 7,300 acres after a BLM employee filed a formal protest. Kincaid testified that "...considerations other than the true presence or absence of wilderness character...motivated first the deletion of the entire unit and then the seemingly meaningless reinstatement of a small portion of the actual roadless area... The agency's wilderness study area (WSA) boundary, he demonstrated, coincided precisely with the boundaries of mining claims -- and eliminated 99 percent of the claims located within the roadless area.
Such exclusions of qualifying wilderness lands are illegal under the BLM's own wilderness inventory guidelines, which specify that the Congress, not the BLM, must weigh wilderness-for-development tradeoffs. The BLM's exclusion of mining claims from Indian Creek pre-empted Congressional review of those lands (see "The BLM Wilderness Review chapter).
A similar explanation accounts for the elimination of more than 30,000 acres of wild lands surrounding Sixshooter Peaks, Lavender Mesa, and Lavender and Davis canyons. There, WSA designation would have blocked the siting of the proposed nuclear waste dump at the mouth of Davis Canyon. At the time of the BLM's wilderness inventory, during 1979 and 1980, the roadless areas bordering Canyonlands National Park were under study as a nuclear waste dump site, and the agency was under intense pressure to keep the entire region open for development.
The nation's first nuclear waste dump will not be located at the mouth of Davis Canyon, for after vigorous opposition from Utahns, the Department of Energy has selected a different site. But Davis Canyon may yet become a candidate site for a second, third, or fourth nuclear waste dump.
Only formal protective status can ensure that the entire Canyonlands Basin will be preserved, intact, for future generations to discover and enjoy. That is the dream embodied in the Utah Wilderness Coalition's wilderness proposal for the Canyonlands Basin.
SHAFER CANYON AND GOOSENECK UNITS
HighlightsTen miles of the Colorado River flow between these units, which are adjacent to the northeast boundary of the Canyonlands National Park. The river, a popular float trip, is the wild entrance to the 700,000-acre roadless area which includes much of the park and its surrounding BLM wild lands. The Gooseneck is an outstanding scenic feature viewed from Dead Horse Point State Park; Shafer Canyon is the foreground for this view. The BLM alleged that these spectacular units lacked wilderness character. We propose 8,300 acres of wilderness for the Gooseneck unit and 3,000 acres below the White Rim jeep trail for the Shafer Canyon unit.
Geology and landformsThese units lie on both sides of the Gooseneck of the Colorado River, a three-mile-long loop that can be seen 1,800 feet below Dead Horse Point State Park. Shafer Canyon also takes in seven additional miles of deeply entrenched canyon walls towering 1,500 feet above the Colorado River and the rugged cliffs and benchlands north of the river. The units are part of the view from Dead Horse Point, one of the premier vistas in the world. Petrified wood and fossils in the Honaker Trail Formation provide a valuable source for geologic study and sightseeing.
Plant communitiesDesert shrub vegetation covers the area, including blackbrush, shadscale, and Indian ricegrass. Tamarisk, willow, and other riparian species line the Colorado River.
WildlifeThe Colorado River supports the endangered bonytail chub and Colorado squawfish. The UDWR identifies the units as a peregrine falcon use area and part of the Gooseneck unit as yearlong bighorn habitat.
Archeology and historyThe primitive track leading to the narrowest part of the Gooseneck dates back to cattle-rustler days, according to the BLM; stolen cattle and horses were hidden there until they could be resold.
RecreationThe Colorado River is a favorite for float trips continuing into Canyonlands National Park. This portion of the river is listed on the Department of the Interior's Nationwide Rivers Inventory. The majestic slickrock canyon walls offer outstanding opportunities for photography, sightseeing, and the study of petrified wood and fossils. The benchlands surrounded by towering cliffs offer outstanding opportunities for solitude. The exceptional scenic qualities of the area attract photographers and hikers alike.
BLM recommendationThe BLM dropped both units from wilderness study. The agency claimed that the Gooseneck unit lacked natural character; its inventory documents show two drill holes, two gully plugs, three seismic lines and 4.4 miles of vehicle track. Our field checks indicate that these occupy a total of 22 acres, not the 1,800 acres the BLM claims. Moreover, most of these impacts are not noticeable to the wilderness visitor. The drill sites are more than a decade old and are no longer evident, and the gully plugs are small and appear natural. In many places one must look long and hard to find the vehicle track, since it has been maintained only by the passage of vehicles. The BLM claimed that Shafer Canyon lacked outstanding opportunities for solitude due to the irregular configuration of the adjacent state park, which comes within half a mile of bisecting the unit. The BLM ignored the protected status of the adjacent state lands and the proposed wilderness in Canyonlands National Park. The BLM also failed to assess the geologic, scenic, and recreational value of the unit.
Coalition proposalThe importance of both of these units for outstanding vistas, river recreation, and the opportunity for scientific study qualifies them for wilderness designation. When considered with the adjacent park lands, the units have added value for these activities. Mineral development potential is low in both; the potash mine in Shafer Basin lies well to the northeast.
INDIAN CREEK UNIT
HighlightsWest of the Needles Overlook, a breathtaking assemblage of eroded pinnacles and twisting canyons composes the 27,000-acre Indian Creek unit. This maze of redrock was proposed for inclusion in Canyonlands National Park in 1962 but was dropped for political reasons. In addition to its magnificent geology, Indian Creek encompasses numerous archeological sites, thriving wildlife habitats, and many opportunities for primitive recreation. Its two perennial streams contrast wonderfully with the dry surroundings of Canyonlands National Park.
Geology and landformsFour steep-walled canyons -- Lockhart, Horsethief, Rustler, and Indian Creek -- cut through the Cutler Formation and into the Honaker Trail Formation. In 1976, the BLM recommended a primitive area here, noting that it "exhibits severely eroded patterns of canyons and knobs and pinnacles...The surface erosion creates a maze of minor canyons with hues varying from purple to buff and a pattern of light and shadows that changes with the hour of the day.
Plant communitiesMuch of the unit is bare slickrock, but its scattered benches support typical desert shrubs, and Indian Creek and Rustler canyons are lined with riparian species. The milkvetch Astragalus monumentalis, a sensitive species, may occur here, according to the BLM.
WildlifeThe unit affords crucial habitat for desert bighorn sheep, according to the BLM, as well as habitat for coyotes, cottontail, whitetailed antelope squirrels, and Ord kangaroo rats. Its skies are home to ravens, rockwren, ash-throated flycatchers, larks, black-throated sparrows, mourning doves, and chukar. The UDWR has classified the southern fifth of the unit a use area for the endangered peregrine falcon. Numerous species of lizards, such as the side-blotched, the northern whiptail, and the sagebrush, are common as well.
Archeology and historyPlentiful examples of Indian rock art, dwellings, and granaries are found here. The BLM has estimated that there could be over 100 archeological sites within its small WSA alone; the area outside the WSA may contain an even greater number. The unit encompasses several historical sites, including the route of the first white explorers in the Canyonlands Basin.
RecreationIndian Creek offers an interesting hike down a scenic canyon away from the crowds in the nearby National Park. It begins where the rocky dirt road leading north from Highway 211 crosses Indian Creek, or alternatively 10 miles beyond this crossing at Rustler Canyon, which gives access to lower Indian Creek. The perennial streams with their occasional pouroffs, sandy benches, and Anasazi ruins make for easy, enjoyable hiking.
BLM recommendationThe BLM recommends wilderness for its 6,870-acre Indian Creek WSA, leaving the remaining 20,000 acres open to potential mining and ORV use. The agency cites old roads and an airstrip as disqualifying intrusions. Our fieldwork shows that the "roads are merely vehicle ways and occupy only a small area, and the airstrip could have easily been excluded with a small boundary modification. A more likely reason for the exclusion is the presence of mining claims and mineral leases for copper, vanadium, potash, and uranium. The BLM cut all but one percent of these claims out of its WSA, zoning the remainder for development.
Coalition proposalOur 27,000-acre proposal would protect Indian Creek's most important wilderness values -- including the archeological sites, wildlife habitat and recreational lands that lie outside of the WSA. Mineral resources in this unit could be developed only at great economic and environmental cost in this dry, remote area; better sources lie in other, developed areas. Although ORVs are currently allowed entry, the topography makes most of the area impassable to motorized vehicles. Indian Creek is a delightful complement to the dry expanses of the surrounding Needles District and should be protected in its entirety.
HARTS POINT UNIT
|I looked more closely at the distant inner gorge rim with our binoculars. The canyon's trickling stream didn't reach the rim, but instead disappeared into a big hole many yards back from the rim. It reappeared in a huge alcove below the rim, then plunged down an undercut cliff into an immense pool of water surrounded by trees, shrubs and grasses. Most certainly the isolated rim of rock was a natural bridge, one never before reported.