Anyone who’s stood at a Grand Canyon National Park overlook knows this natural wonder can appear inconceivably huge. But from the remote wilderness perch where I’m sitting, it’s even bigger.
High atop 7,866-foot Mt. Logan in northwestern Arizona, I lean back on my elbows and gaze at the most spectacular Grand Canyon panorama I’ve ever seen. Spreading out before me in kaleidoscopic relief is not only the massive canyon, but also its sister region, the Shivwits Plateau, a place 19th-century cowboys called the “high, wide, and lonesome” country.
To the south, the plateau drops off into the broad, snaking chasm of the western Grand Canyon. I look down and wonder if rafters are running Lava Falls. Far on the western horizon, the Shivwits fades into the starkly eroded Grand Wash Cliffs. Between here and there, the plateau is cut by Parashant Canyon and other little-explored drainages that flow into the Grand Canyon. To the north are the Virgin Mountains and vast tablelands that gave the Shivwits its “high, wide” reputation. From this perch, I can see the entire Grand Canyon ecosystem, 150 miles’ worth, the whole enchilada. And much to the delight of scientists, environmentalists, and vista mongers like me, that enchilada is now protected.
On January 11, 2000, President Bill Clinton established the 1.1-million-acre Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument. The move, as Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt put it at the dedication ceremony, “writes the full and final chapter in the history of preserving the canyon.” Encompassing spectacular viewing points from the north rim of the Grand Canyon as well as watersheds crucial to the health of the Colorado River, the vast monument protects much of the Shivwits Plateau and doubles the amount of Grand Canyon land protected under the National Parks and Monuments system. The Grand Canyon-Parashant abuts Grand Canyon National Park’s northern boundary and extends west to the Nevada border. Within the massive preserve are a variety of landscapes, from forested mountains to plateau grasslands to slickrock slot canyons.
Protection of the Grand Canyon itself began in 1908 when President Theodore Roosevelt established Grand Canyon National Monument, which Congress designated a national park in 1919. Land around the park was added in 1975 with the passage of the Grand Canyon Enlargement Act, bringing the park to its current 1 million acres. However, in 1975 and again in the 1980s, when the region was surveyed for wilderness designation, the Shivwits Plateau was bypassed for preservation by a Congress pressured by ranching and mining interests. Those ranchers and miners never could have guessed back then that Babbitt, an Arizona native and that state’s governor in the 1980s, would eventually hold a governmental post granting him the authority and influence to finally protect his favorite place.
“I first encountered (the Shivwits region) in the 1950s and was struck by its beauty and remoteness. I’ve been in love with this landscape for a long time,” Babbitt said in March 1999 at a Flagstaff, Arizona, public hearing on the proposed national monument. The auditorium was full of angry ranchers who heckled Babbitt, shouting, “Why don’t you just go back to Washington and leave us alone?”
“This is my state, and I want to get this land protected on my watch,” responded Babbitt, a seasoned Grand Canyon hiker. And he did. Although the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument proposal was vehemently opposed by people living in the sparsely populated Arizona Strip, as well as by Gov. Jane Hull and most of the state’s congressional delegation, Babbitt convinced President Clinton to approve it anyway. The monument even doubled in size from the originally proposed 500,000 acres, thanks to lobbying from environmental groups who successfully championed the notion of protecting the entire Grand Canyon ecosystem.
“The most astonishing thing is that it’s set up around watershed boundaries and intended to preserve the whole ecosystem,” Kelly Burke of the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council told me
6 months after the monument’s creation was announced, still in shock that her environmental coalition had actually won. “People think that just because a region is remote, it will be protected by default, but they have no idea how fast and how much a place can change.”
The Shivwits tablelands have suffered for more than a century from overgrazing, and the area was recently targeted for potential uranium mining and oil and gas extraction. Plus, development booms in the towns of St. George, Utah, and Mesquite, Nevada (both near the Shivwits), have increased prospects for rural sprawl, off-road vehicle (ORV) use, and camping in the “high, wide, and lonesome” country. While a small portion of the land within Grand Canyon-Parashant is part of Lake Mead National Recreation Area and is managed by the National Park Service, most of the 1 million acres has been and will continue to be under the stewardship of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
“The monument designation gives the BLM the authority they need to protect it,” said Burke. Limited grazing will continue within the preserve, but mining, development, and ORV use will be banned.
Under the auspices of the federal Antiquities Act, which Clinton used to establish the monument, the Shivwits was deemed to be “of historic and scientific significance” not only because of its remote wilderness character, but also for its geology and wildlife. From the 1.7-billion-year-old Vishnu Schist at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the 1-million-year-old volcanic basalt atop Mt. Logan, the geologic features in the National Park and Monument offer more information on the formation of the Earth than do those at almost any other location on the planet.
The Shivwits is also ecologically unique because it’s where the Sonoran, Great Basin, and Mojave Deserts intersect. The region provides critical habitat for numerous endangered and threatened species as well, including California condors, desert tortoises, willow flycatchers, desert bighorn sheep, and pronghorn antelope.
While some 5 million people a year peer over the rim of the Grand Canyon in the national park, it’s doubtful many of those sightseers will venture into the new monument. There are no paved roads within the 1-million-acre preserve, and no development beyond a BLM field station and old livestock corrals.
“We intend to maintain the area’s remoteness,” says Betty Arial of the BLM’s Arizona Strip Field Office. “We don’t want to pave roads or have established campgrounds like a national park. We don’t want to do anything to detract from the natural experience of the place.”
I’m all for that, and mainly for selfish reasons. The development on the south rim of the Grand Canyon has turned that part of the national park and its primary corridor trails into a tourist haven rather than a wilderness preserve. Here on Mt. Logan, in the southeastern section of the new monument, I have a spectacular view of the Grand Canyon all to myself, although it required driving 55 miles down a brain-rattling dirt road and hiking steadily uphill for several hours to get here.
With afternoon thunderstorms brewing to the south and west, I finally tear myself away from the overlook long enough to set up my tent in a sheltered grove of old- growth ponderosa pines. There’s no sign of humans anywhere.
I wait inside my tent for the storm to pass and listen to a dove cooing nearby. Its sweet music is eventually drowned out by wind that roars up off the plateau and buffets the mountain like a pounding ocean surf.
As soon as the lightning subsides, I return to the overlook with a sense of urgency, afraid I might miss some subtle change in the light and color of the Grand Canyon. In early evening, the sun pokes through the clouds and the light becomes softer, painting the canyons and cliffs in shades of lavender, pink, and orange. I scope out places to explore on future trips: Hell’s Hollow, Parashant Canyon, Grand Wash Cliffs. The new monument is so big and the hiking possibilities so numerous that just thinking about it is overwhelming. There’s no rush, though. As President Clinton said when he dedicated the preserve, “Thousands of years from now, no one will remember who set aside this land for protection, but it will be here for people to enjoy.”
On this particular summer evening, I’m content to just sit back and enjoy-the sunset, the spectacular size of the grand view before me, and the prospect of what’s finally been protected.