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Grand Canyon and Colorado Plateau conservation advocates : Grand Canyon Trust

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Politically Imperiled Landscape

The landscape surrounding Canyonlands National Park is one of the largest roadless areas in the lower 48 states and one of the last untouched frontiers of the West — yet it is politically and environmentally imperiled.

Elected officials in Utah are adamantly opposed to federal protections for wildlands; many believe the state should take possession of all federal lands and leave the American public out of the discussion. In March 2012, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed state legislation demanding the federal government relinquish 28 million acres by 2014, a bill that will be proven unconstitutional in the courts after a promised costly battle with taxpayer money.


The spectacular Greater Canyonlands region is a critical watershed on the Colorado Plateau; the Green, Dirty Devil and San Rafael Rivers wind through it to meet the Colorado River. The confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers lies in the very heart of the Colorado Plateau in Canyonlands National Park. Proposed oil and gas drilling, tar sands strip mining, and uranium and potash development — some of which could be visible from the Park — would carve up this wild landscape, diminish air and water quality, fragment wildlife habitat, and destroy breathtaking scenery.

Cultural Values

This threatened landscape also contains lands that are culturally and spiritually important to indigenous people of the Colorado Plateau. Noted Southwest archaeologist Jerry Spangler calls this area “a largely untapped library of 12,000 years of human history.” The region contains well-preserved Ice Age hunting camps as well as artifacts of later agrarian civilizations. Spangler further notes these sites constitute “some of the most scientifically important cultural resources in North America, each with evidence that could help unravel secrets into our collective human past.”

Tar Sands Strip Mining

The “Tar Sands Triangle,” encompassing 200 square miles, is located in southeast Utah between the Colorado and Dirty Devil Rivers. Energy companies hold leases for tar sands strip mining on over 90,000 acres in this area. The leases are located inside Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and also border on Canyonlands National Park and existing BLM wilderness study areas. This spectacular remote and rugged landscape of high mesas, deep canyons and vertical cliffs is inappropriate for heavy industrial development and destruction by strip mining. Any commitment of land and water resources to this greenhouse-gas-intensive form of energy development would threaten water quality and quantity in the Upper Colorado River Basin. Commercial tar sands strip mining here would end water security for millions of downstream users in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, San Diego, Mexico, and other places in the arid West relying on the Colorado River. 

Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining gave its final approval in January 2013 to a Canadian corporation for the first-in-the-U.S, commercial tar sands strip mining operation at PR Springs in the Book Cliffs near Moab. The agency opened the door to future tar sands development in the U.S. and the Tar Sands Triangle, on federal and state owned lands. Tar sands deposits in Utah are inferior in quality and composition to those in Alberta, Canada, and will require more investment of energy to extract the bitumen. The experimental development process, which uses a citrus-based solvent to liquefy the bitumen, will determine if extraction is economically feasible; the extraction process is far more energy-intensive and destructive than conventional oil production.

New National Monument

President Obama can protect the Greater Canyonlands region under the authority of the Antiquities Act, which presidents use to protect places of national historic and scientific value. Presidents of both parties have used the Antiquities Act in Utah frequently and successfully. Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Capitol Reef National Parks were all national monuments before they became national parks.

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