America’s Best Idea

Upper Comb Wash in Greater Canyonlands. © Tim Peterson
Upper Comb Wash in Greater Canyonlands. © Tim Peterson

Greater Canyonlands: Getting America’s Best Idea Right

The National Parks have been called “America’s Best Idea,” and the idea of protecting Greater Canyonlands has endured for nearly 80 years.

The National Park Service first proposed a national monument protecting Greater Canyonlands and the Colorado River’s surrounding canyons in 1935. The following year, the first proposal for a 6,000-square-mile Escalante National Monument recognized the need to preserve the extraordinary character of southern Utah’s Redrock wilderness—including the area now known as Greater Canyonlands.  Pro-development advocates attacked this visionary idea, but President Franklin Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes continued to push for a 4.5 million-acre Escalante National Monument through 1940.

World War II diverted our attention, but Bates Wilson, then superintendent of Arches National Monument, worked tirelessly to introduce decision-makers to this remarkable place in the 1950s.

 “That’s a National Park!”

Wilson found an ally in John F. Kennedy’s Interior Secretary, Stewart Udall.  In 1961, Floyd Dominy, tireless head of the dam-building Bureau of Reclamation, flew Udall in a small plane to show him where he hoped to build his next dam: just below the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers.  But Udall didn’t see a new dam site.  Instead, he famously looked down and exclaimed, “Goodness sake, that’s a national park!”

After that plane flight, Udall directed the Interior Department to plan a one million acre Canyonlands National Park.  But Congress whittled down the proposal, and when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the public law creating the park in 1964, he preserved just 257,640 acres—about a tenth the acreage of Yellowstone National Park.

“You can talk about the Grand Canyon,” Stewart Udall said later. “You can talk about Yellowstone, Yosemite. I’m biased—I’m not sure they compare with the Canyonlands.”

Canyonlands was expanded in 1971 to its present 337,570 acres, and a year later, the creation of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area added some additional protection to the lands surrounding Lake Powell.  Yet even with these additions, the boundaries of Canyonlands National Park were political boundaries that divided the watershed and left large parts of the Greater Canyonlands ecosystem unprotected and vulnerable to degradation.

Fifty years after Stewart Udall’s vision of a Canyonlands National Park, Greater Canyonlands remains one of the West’s last untouched frontiers and one of the largest areas in the lower 48 states wild enough to offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity to proclaim an environmental legacy and protect a beloved landscape. President Obama could declare the area a national monument through his authority under the Antiquities Act.

The Antiquities Act is a tool that allows the president to protect places of extraordinary scientific, ecological, and historical value. Sixteen presidents, Republicans, and Democrats have used the Act to protect special places over the past hundred years, including the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty.  Four out of five of Utah’s national parks – Bryce Canyon, Zion, Capitol Reef, and Arches – were first protected under the Antiquities Act. The designation of national monuments through the Antiquities Act has been a cornerstone of conservation in America, protecting lands and waters already owned by the American people and preserving unique pieces of our shared natural and cultural history for future generations.

Greater Canyonlands sweeps across a vast network of canyons and mesas filled with scientific, cultural, and historical treasures—precisely the sort of place that the Antiquities Act was designed to protect.

As Canyonlands National Park celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and the Centennial of the National Park Service approaches in 2016, President Obama has a unique opportunity to fulfill the National Park’s original vision by establishing the Greater Canyonlands National Monument–and get America’s best idea right.

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