An occasional essay on issues pertaining to the Western landscape
Many of us red-rock aficionados here in Utah have been feeling pretty beleaguered lately, what with the government taking big chunks out of two of our finest national monuments (Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante) and pushing energy and mineral development all across our lovely canyon and plateau country. This fall we’re seeing renewed efforts by Utah Representative John Curtis and Senator Orrin Hatch to pass their public lands bill for Emery County, which would designate wilderness in the San Rafael Swell, Desolation Canyon and Labyrinth Canyon, but at the cost of opening up much more land to mining and enshrining off-road vehicle and mountain bike routes in some important roadless areas.
Being a historian, I’m going to leave the details of this bill to others* and try to step back for a little broader view. How do we go about deciding which lands to protect and which to leave open to development and motorized recreation in the amazing region we call “canyon country?” I believe it’s a matter of vision: specifically, what do we want this region of red rock canyons and blue-mantled mountains to look like 50 or 100 years from now?
Consider the hauntingly beautiful cliffs and side canyons on the west side of the Green River in Labyrinth Canyon--just one part of the BLM lands dealt with in this bill. (The Emery County bill also addresses the high-value wildlands stretching from lower Desolation and Gray Canyons, across the western Book Cliffs, through the San Rafael Swell and the adjacent San Rafael Desert.) Both the “Swell” and “Deso” are prime recreation destinations for many Utahns, but for my wife and I, Labyrinth Canyon is the go-to place, offering an easy, wonder-filled float trip that leads clear into Canyonlands National Park. It’s a family-friendly wilderness where we’ve paddled with our six-year-old daughter sitting in the bow seat, helping us make our way down the easy current.
A trip down Labyrinth doesn’t require a great deal of skill or effort, which is its real charm. For four days you get to witness life along a biologically significant river corridor, where great blue herons roost on niches in the cliffs and river otters cavort in the silty stream. At night the stars come out in profusion and Canada geese call from the sandbars.
Yet Labyrinth Canyon is also a political entity--a roadless area that has the misfortune to be split between three counties and two Bureau of Land Management districts. In past years the BLM proposed to designate part of the west bank of Labyrinth as wilderness, but not the east bank—a schizophrenic approach to managing a single river corridor. The Curtis-Hatch bill follows this same pattern, calling for wilderness designation for only a portion of the west side of Labyrinth, from Keg Spring Canyon downstream, and leaving out such entrancing places as Three Canyon and Bull Bottom.
Looking at a map of the land designations in the Hatch-Curtis bill, one sees immediately how the large roadless areas surrounding Desolation Canyon and Labyrinth Canyon are sliced right in two along county lines. Should the bill pass, we’d have two new wilderness areas that end at this boundary—a strange result indeed. Only the San Rafael Swell is entirely within Emery County, and it would be fragmented into a ring of smaller wilderness areas surrounding a roaded interior.
Presumably, the roadless lands adjoining Emery County would be taken up in bills for Carbon, Uinta, Grand and Wayne counties—but this certainly is a piecemeal, disjointed way to go about protecting these magnificent wildland expanses. There’s no guarantee that legislators representing these counties would go along with wilderness designations, and once again we’d be left with protected fragments of what were once integral roadless areas.
The result would be more of what one already encounters on a float trip down Labyrinth, where is certain places one encounters jeeps, dirt bikes and ATVs roaring along old mining roads, their noise carrying for miles. In places where we’ve pulled our canoe to shore to camp, all we see is crushed desert vegetation and eroding raceways. These are the kind of impacts which wilderness designation would help to limit. ORV enthusiasts object to this, of course, even though there are miles and miles of backcountry routes away from the river corridor.
There are two historical precedents for going about land planning in southern Utah in a more holistic fashion. One was issued in 1878 by John Wesley Powell in his Report on the Arid Lands of the United States, in which he called for creating political divisions along watershed lines instead of by the linear land surveys used in the eastern U.S. This approach, which Powell derived in part by observing Mormon settlement patterns in Utah, was rejected in favor of the straight-line, section-and-township approach, which is superimposed on the land without reference to any physical features.
Another attempt at a big-picture view emerged in 1936, when the National Park Service unveiled an astonishing proposal for a 4.5 million-acre Escalante national monument encompassing almost the entirety of the Utah canyon lands. It began ten miles south of the town of Green River and extended clear to the San Juan River. It was a breathtaking concept that was commensurate with the scope of the New Deal, which was intended to breathe life into moribund rural economies through tourism development, new roads, and hydropower projects. Hydropower interests, however, helped sink the Escalante proposal, as did opposition from Utah ranchers who were concerned about the loss of grazing privileges.
The Escalante proposal did spawn other big ideas, including Canyonlands National Park, an expanded Capitol Reef National Monument, and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. But none of these took in the whole of the Utah canyon lands or offered any kind of comprehensive vision for what ought to become of them.
Further retreat from a regional approach to Utah’s canyon lands came during the BLM wilderness reviews of the 1970s, which fractured roadless lands between agency jurisdictions and excised whole sections of wilderness that happened to overlie mineral leaseholds. Labyrinth Canyon, in particular, suffered from this disjointed approach to planning: floating down the river, one sees on the right cliffs and canyons that the BLM proposed to designate as wilderness, but turn your gaze to the other side and you are looking at land with almost no protection. Roughly the same result occurs in the Hatch-Curtis bill.
Utah environmental groups draw all kinds of fire when they try to limit vehicles or slow down the pace of oil and gas development in these lands. Any legislation that Utah’s political leaders introduce in the foreseeable future will necessarily bend toward the interests of mineral extractors, livestock permittees, and off-road vehicle users. Roadless wildlands will, as a result, suffer their historic neglect.
I wish, though, that as a people we might strive for a little higher vision. We could try to slow down the advance of our mechanized, fossil-fuel powered culture in this last bare-rock frontier. We could aspire to take only the minimum of what we need from this landscape, leaving most of it alone for the values it might offer. Somewhere along the way we lost hold of that vision, but down on the river, and out on the rimrocks, it still seems worth the effort to regain it.
*For a map depicting the Hatch-Curtis bill, follow this link. For an update on the bill, visit this page.
Labyrinth Canyon on the Green River. Photo by author.