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Park History: Canyonlands National Park

You're far from being the first person to set foot in the landscape now called Canyonlands National Park. People have been visiting this region for more than 10,000 years.

Over time, many different groups have moved in and out of the area in concert with the availability of natural resources and the technology for exploiting those resources. You can find sign of their travels in the intriguing rock art they've left on canyon walls.

More recently, this tableau of red-rock country has never lived up to the expectations of those who set their eyes on the landscape and saw not a wasteland but rather a cataclysm of earth, water, and sky that should be protected and enjoyed as a national park.

As early as 1936, 28 years before the park was actually created, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes envisioned an "Escalante National Monument" of nearly 4.5 million acres, a behemoth that would encompass a good deal of Utah's southeastern corner south of Green River and east of Torrey.

Not until the 1960s did the idea of a national park in this corner of Utah return. Arches National Monument Superintendent Bates Wilson advocated the creation of a national park in what is now Canyonlands. He led government officials on jeep tours that featured lengthy talks over campfires and hearty dutch oven dinners. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall joined one of these tours in 1961, and began lobbying for the proposed park.

On September 12, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Public Law 88-590 establishing Canyonlands National Park. Initially consisting of 257,640 acres, Congress expanded Canyonlands to its present size of 337,598 acres in 1971 with the addition of the Horseshoe Canyon annex. But that didn't settle the debate over exactly how big the park should be.

Those who want a larger park point out that if from the lip of Grand View Point an immense ruddy landscape in a constant state of decay sweeps before your eyes, and yet, though you're in the heart of Canyonlands, not all you see is within the park.

From time to time efforts have been mounted to solve this problem. It was revived most recently in the late 1980s by the National Parks Conservation Association, and again in the early 1990s when then-Superintendent Walt Dabney endorsed "completing" the park by stretching its boundaries to the surrounding rims of the basin created by the Colorado and Green rivers.

But in highly conservative Utah, where many resent the federal government's land ownership in large part because they see it as an impediment to economic development, the movement to enlarge Canyonlands has never gathered much steam.

For now, talk of completing Canyonlands remains on the backburner. The Park Service, despite Mr. Dabney's efforts in the 1990s, is not pushing for it, and no member of the Utah congressional delegation is talking about it. But the question that lack of impetus raises is, how long will these areas be worth protecting within a national park?

Canyonlands National Park

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