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Preserving Paradise: Glen Canyon

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

©Larry Carver
If grassroots groups have their way, Glen Canyon will become the fourth largest national park in the Lower 48, and spots like Coyote Natural Bridge will gain new protection.

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.

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