Preserving Paradise: Glen Canyon

Drought has brought the canyon back. Would national park status keep it that way?
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Drought has brought the canyon back. Would national park status keep it that way?

Even the most eternally optimistic houseboaters have to admit that their beloved Lake Powell is more empty than full. A 5-year drought has dropped water levels by nearly 70 percent, revealing smooth sandstone walls, winding side canyons, and slickrock benches--in other words, restoring the Eden that Edward Abbey called the heart of canyon country.

While the drought may be bad news for water-skiers, Mother Nature's dramatic and unexpected rescue of Glen Canyon has sparked a grassroots initiative to protect the area as a national park. "Restoring the canyon is no longer an abstract notion now that people can actually experience its beauty," says Chris Peterson, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute, the conservation group behind the effort. Peterson and others at the Salt Lake City-based GCI hit the campaign trail in May to promote the idea of Glen Canyon National Park, holding town meetings in communities near the canyon as well as in metropolitan areas like Denver, Flagstaff, and San Francisco. This summer, they'll be leading hiking trips into the area so people can stand in the cool, knee-deep waters of the Escalante River and experience the newly emerged canyon for themselves. They've also spearheaded a project to create a hiking map of the unburied treasures. Their hope is that public pressure will ultimately push Congress to pass a bill converting the 1.25-million-acre Glen Canyon National Recreation Area into Glen Canyon National Park.

Such a seemingly simple name change would alter the area's management mission from motor-sports recreation to canyon conservation. Funds targeted for projects like extending cement boat ramps or upgrading marinas might well be diverted for the construction of more trails and interpretive centers. Scientists and archeologists would be hired to study the land and document the numerous emerging Native American cultural sites. And trailheads would likely replace some lakeside gas stations.

National park status wouldn't just benefit the land, it would help the local economy, too, says Peterson. Over the last several years, negative publicity about low lake levels and closed marinas has reduced the number of Lake Powell visitors by half, affecting jobs and businesses. Peterson believes that designating the area a national park would boost numbers, just as it did for Joshua Tree, which has seen visitation double since it went national in 1994.

But securing the name change won't be easy. Ultimately, a U.S. senator or representative would need to sponsor a bill calling for creation of the national park. The bill would then need approval from Congress and the White House--a process that could take a decade or more.

So what are the odds? "Before the dam was approved in the 1950s, Glen Canyon definitely met national park criteria," says David Haskell, a 33-year National Park Service veteran and current policy director for Living Rivers, another Utah-based group fighting for restoration of Glen Canyon. "But Glen Canyon National Park is a long shot unless it's coupled with decommissioning the dam."

There's hope for such a dramatic policy decision even under the current administration, Haskell says, because the dam "doesn't make economic sense any longer." Haskell believes the best ammunition is the high price Western cities are paying to maintain a half-full Lake Powell.

Both Haskell and Peterson contend it would be far more economical to keep Powell's water downstream in Lake Mead (currently almost half empty) or underground in existing aquifers--a practice becoming more common in Arizona and Nevada. And although Haskell remains skeptical, Peterson also believes that a national park designation would help promote a more efficient water policy and restore Glen Canyon by government mandate rather than by accident.

"We're talking about more than a million acres here, a huge blank spot on the map," says Peterson. "How can we pass up the chance to protect it?"

For more info about GCI's campaign and guided trips: (801) 363-4450; glencanyon.org