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05/02/2012

Preserve Our History, Preserve Our Future—Protect Utah’s Greater Canyonlands

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Desert Bighorn sheep were well known to Native Americans who painted their likeness onto rocks throughout the desert southwest.When Father Escalante crossed the Colorado River and entered Utah, he wrote in his journal, “here wild sheep live in such abundance that their tracks are like those of great herds of domestic sheep".1  But, by 1964 only a remnant herd of about 100 native Desert Bighorns remained in Utah. They had taken refuge in a remote region along the Colorado River in what became Canyonlands National Park that same year.

If it were not for Canyonlands National Park, the protected heart of Utah’s Greater Canyonlands, Desert Bighorn sheep would likely have gone extinct in Utah.  Protected within the National Park and with careful management of livestock grazing, Utah’s Desert Bighorn sheep thrived so that by the 1980s there were enoughto allow reintroduction into other protected areas like Arches National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the San Rafael Swell.  Today, there are about 3,000 Desert Bighorn sheep in Utah, but only because this remote protected refuge was available to them, did they survive and thrive. 

When people visit Canyonlands, very likely they will not see the secretive Desert Bighorn nor would they likely see the mystical hanging gardens in the nearly 300 seeps and springs that flourish in the region.  Likely, visitors will be stunned by the exposed rocks, plateaus, deeply incised gorges, sinuous canyons, and towering mesas.  These red rocks glow like fire at sunrise and sunset.

Many people hike, ride mountain bikes, backpack, raft and kayak within Greater Canyonlands.  It is a place where solitude can still be sought and found.  With 1.4 million wild acres, Greater Canyonlands is the largest unprotected roadless area in the lower 48 states.  It is a place where one can seemingly look forever into the distance, under a pristine sky that lights up at night with the Milky Way sweeping across it, a bright cloud of stars.

Greater Canyonlands has a concentration of natural beauty, geological spectacle, and ancient human artifacts unlike any on the planet. Modern day recreationalists are newcomers to this land. Abundant petroglyphs and pictographs, rock panels of Ancestral Puebloan people, provide ample evidence of some of the best, undisturbed archeological evidence of early human use of the area.  This includes well-preserved Ice Age hunting camps, hundreds of cliff dwellings, and granaries, all dating back 12,000 years. 

This ancient expanse of spectacular red rocks, unique plants, sensitive species, wildlife and unparalleled night skies has endured for ages, but it may not survive the threats it currently faces if it is not protected.  It is open to rampant off-road vehicle abuse that destroys the biological crust that takes decades to form and is crucial for holding the single inch of topsoil in place.  So much dust now blows up from the Utah desert that it leaves a red coating on the snow of the Colorado Rockies, causing it to melt faster and resulting in fewer perennial streams to provide water through the hot, dry summer.

Within Greater Canyonlands is the Tar Sands Triangle, perhaps the largest tar sands deposit in the nation. This fragile desert land is also at risk for proposed uranium mines, and oil, gas and potash developments.

To top it off Utah’s elected public servants are not working in the public’s best interest in their stewardship of public lands for the future.  They have dredged up laws from the time of the original westward expansion to try to thwart any kind of land protection and open the door to private interests, including claiming nearly 40,000 miles of alleged roads, of which most are nothing more than paths, wildlife trails, washes or river beds. They are also spending millions of dollars on a lawsuit even their own attorneys advise against to gain control of 30 million acres of federal lands in Utah by having these lands turned over to the state – a move that could result in the privatization of some of the most culturally and ecologically rich areas in Utah.  Not only would Utahns lose access to world class wilderness quality land, all Americans would lose this national treasure as well.

If this remarkable region is to survive for future generations to enjoy we must act quickly to protect it.  This area warrants and deserves permanent protection.  Greater Canyonlands deserves to be a national monument.

-By Marion Klaus

 

1.Rawley, E. V. 1985. Early records of wildlife in Utah.  Publication number 86-2. Division of Wildlife Resources, Department of Natural Resources, Salt Lake City, Utah. USA.

 

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