Water Lines: Return from Desolation Canyon
Free Press Columnist
A recent “working” trip on the Green River in Desolation Canyon, and in the Desolation Wilderness Study Area, stimulated reflections on the importance and challenges of protecting wild rivers in wild places.
Conceived by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and organized by the River Management Society (RMS), the seven-day, 84-mile raft trip’s purpose was to record video footage of the cliffs, cottonwood-willow forests, reclamation work, cultural resources (petroglyphs, structures), and wildlife of the Green River in Desolation and Gray Canyons of northeast Utah, and to record interviews of individuals who have hiked, rafted, kayaked, and enjoyed the area.
2014 is also the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Since it was signed into law, the public, through their congressional delegations, has had a say in what lands to preserve as wild places.
Studies indicate that populations will double in Utah and Colorado by the year 2050. The increased demand for water from all these new people, coupled with climate change (projected reductions in supply), will cause increasing pressures for water from municipal and industrial uses, mining, and energy development. Add in competing demands for recreation, preservation of endangered fish species, and maintaining in-stream flows, and you have a recipe for conflict.
Writer Roy Webb in his book, “If I Had A Boat,” observes that in the past, scientific discovery, mineral riches, furs, and cattle ranching brought many to the canyons of the Green River. He notes that now, people come not to “exploit,” but to “experience” solitude, natural beauty, and challenge.
Along the last miles above the remote put-in at Sand Wash, one travels the creek bed, sandwiched between towering cliffs of oil shale in the Green River Formation, and through past evidence of flash flooding. The sight of the Green River caused me to heave a sigh of relief. Now the shuttle drivers could worry about how to get my vehicle out of this place. I focused my attention on the river.
Our group of 18 came from Idaho, Nevada, New Hampshire and various parts of Utah and Colorado, with jobs as educators, rangers, archaeologists, fire fighters, videographers, public information specialists, city administrators, recreations specialists, fundraisers, Emergency Medical Technicians, retired governmental managers, and staff members of Trout Unlimited. They had impressive credentials, but their real motivation was to set aside these vocations and be challenged by fast water, towering cliffs, and a feeling of isolation.
The next seven days would unveil changes in the canyon and in the perceptions of the group. The dawn hours revealed the waning moon cradled in the undulating ridgelines of towering cliffs. This was repeated each day until the moon disappeared completely.
We hiked to petroglyphs and observed Fremont granaries and remnants of pit houses. A BLM archaeologist cautioned for the need to protect and preserve. Because of vandalism, she was reluctant to reveal but a few known places.
We scouted rapids with instructions to be careful, set up rescue points, and eddied out if trouble. A few novice boatmen “won their oars,” concluding their runs with high fives and grins from ear to ear. For me, the “scout” at Coal Creek was a highlight: Seeing the crux of the rapid and plotting a course (Plan A, Plan B, heaven-forbid Plan C); and personal success (one of the reasons we came).
We also explored the abandoned Rock Creek ranch, one the more beautiful watered spots in the desert West. Discussion of public acquisition of privately owned “in holdings” within the Wilderness Study Area ensued, and strategies were outlined. Complex financial and value considerations pose challenges in tackling this issue.
Someone I like to imagine as the “loin cloth man” had created rock towers, a fireplace with hearth and chimney, and drift wood shelters at Rattlesnake Beach. He left a note for “drifters” to enjoy the “art.”
The rangers initially planned to remove the structures to make the beach appear untouched by man. They ultimately decided to allow the work to remain and leave a note for the “settler” to remove it before he left. If, during a future river patrol, the structures remained, the rangers would remove the “art.” Knowing that everything changes eventually, I expect that the structures will wash away in the next high water flows.
In my estimation, this was a wise decision by BLM staff that wanted to meet the regulations, but also respect the efforts of an individual who may not have known the rules. The need for thoughtful decision-making in the gray area between absolute right and absolute wrong is the reason we need committed individuals working in parks and wilderness areas.
At one camp, a sow bear and her cub worked the opposite beach in search of food. The bear slowly turned over rocks while the cub ran and jumped around. She ignored us.
Throughout the trip, the BLM interviewed people about their views on wilderness and their experiences in protected wild places. They also filmed examples of stipulations included in permits issued to those traveling within the Wilderness Study Area, such as using fire pans; carrying a leak-proof toilet system; carrying out all waste; wearing approved adequate life jackets; and, of course, not removing or destroying archaeological, historical, or ecological resources. The BLM will use the footage for a video that visitors can watch on line before undertaking a trip in the area.
The opportunity for the River Management Society to float with the managers of Desolation Canyon allowed the RMS to understand management issues at the working level. The trip also gave me a chance to think about how a river user like myself might be able to help agencies like the BLM that are struggling to maintain in a climate of dwindling financial resources and increasing development pressures.
This column is adapted from a longer article prepared for the RMS Journal, Summer, 2014 or Vol. 27, No. 2. This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or Twitter at Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.
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