Canyonlands National Park surrounds the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers southeast Utah. Established in 1964, the park’s original boundaries were drawn arbitrarily, the result of political compromises dictated by the concerns of the day. Ever since, conservationists have hoped to “complete” the park as originally conceived by incorporating the full ecological and erosional basin below the high rims of adjoining mesas. This completion proposal primarily involves the redesignation of federal lands already held by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Forest Service; only one major parcel of private land lies within the proposed larger boundary, the Dugout Ranch that is owned by The Nature Conservancy. Utah state trust lands are scattered across the basin, as well.
In 2008-2009, the “Wallace Stegner and Western Lands” Think Tank class in the Honors College at the University of Utah evaluated the Canyonlands Completion proposal as an example of the challenges of contemporary Western land policy. The nine students interviewed residents and officials from San Juan and Grand counties as well as federal land managers and scientists. We heard from diverse experts and stakeholders in class and conducted extensive background research. Our work played out against the backdrop of the BLM oil and gas leasing controversy during the transition from the Bush to the Obama administrations, which raised the specter of industrial development on the periphery of several Utah national parks, including Canyonlands.
We conclude that a key problem lies in systemic conflicts inherent between competing federal land agencies that have opposing legal mandates and quite different land management objectives. We recommend a new interagency coordination policy designed to reduce the conflicts that arise whenever two such agencies share a border. Given the ongoing border conflicts in the Canyonlands region, we also propose new models for collaboration and the creation of a new Canyonlands National Preserve surrounding the existing park and managed by the Park Service. This approach to “completing” Canyonlands would help ensure the park’s integrity while also allowing for dialogue and flexibility in making future management decisions.