The Black Canyon in western Colorado is one of the world’s most splendid examples of the depths to which erosion and uplift can go. A steep gash in ancient granite, nearly 3,000 feet deep — only 40 feet wide at its narrowest, and not a whole lot wider at its rim — the Black Canyon is the kind of geological anomaly we like to single out for national park designation. The Black Canyon started on this path in 1933, with a national monument designation by Congress, and was finally consummated in 1999, with full national park status.
the Black Canyon has been in the news lately, not because of its
dramatic beauty, but because of the cracks in our contradictory
This time, the issue is water. The
canyon was carved by a river, and it wouldn’t be a very
meaningful park without a river. But with dams and diversions
upstream of the canyon, there’s no guarantee that there will
always be a river through the park, let alone what kind of river.
This has long been known. So, after more than 60 years of
fiddling around on the establishment of a 1933 "federal reserved
water right" on the Gunnison River, the National Park Service filed
a claim in 2001 for enough water to create a spring flood in the
canyon, one that would replicate the way things were in 1933. This
request was consistent with the agency’s founding mission to
"preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values
of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and
inspiration of this and future generations."
flood was necessary, the Park Service said, to replicate spring
floods that regularly tore out any plant life with the temerity to
try to creep up the canyon, and that kept the rocks rolling and
grinding down to the Sea of Cortez.
That application for
a reserved water right is complicated by the park’s existence
on a highly controlled river just below three dams built in the
1960s and 1970s. The dams’ purpose? Controlling and storing
spring floods so that there can be regular releases throughout the
year. The dams were built to stop the floods the Park Service wants
to create with its water right.
So it is not surprising
that there are more than 400 opponents to the Park Service claim,
people who depend on the dam-regulated flows. From the other side
comes a suit by environmental organizations against the Interior
Department and the state of Colorado, which says the Park
Service’s "protection" mission was abandoned in a back-room
agreement between the feds and the state of Colorado last summer.
All of that is a kind of background noise to the
coming-to-roost of a century of believing there was enough water in
the West to do anything we wanted, if we just moved the shells
around fast enough. The Park Service is missing an opportunity here
to illustrate the consequences of that shell game.
real story in the Gunnison Basin is of a proud — some might
say arrogant — civilization whose left hand did not always
know what its right hand was doing: We built dams upstream of a
place dedicated to preserving a natural river.
Out of one
office, the Park Service now manages both the Black Canyon National
Park and the Curecanti Recreation Area, the flat-water recreation
on the three reservoirs. This neatly encompasses its dual, if not
But the Park Service has always been
about history as well as pretty places, with "National Historic
Parks" that try to tell the American story, warts and all. I think
of the Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, Mass., where I
got hooked for a whole day once. It’s a place where the
industrialization of America is told from the perspective of
everyone from owners to engineers to workers. The Harpers Ferry
National Historical Park in West Virginia — where
abolitionist John Brown staged his 1859 raid to secure weapons for
a planned fight against slavery — examines an explosive nexus
in America’s racial ambiguity.
National Park could tell another important story. It may be time
here in the West to abandon our schizoid perception of this region
as either scenery or resources and never the twain should meet. The
tug-of-war between resources and scenery is the living history of
the West: wilderness vs. mining, public-land grazing vs. "cattle
free," forest clear-cuts vs. zero cut, dams vs. freely flowing
It’s a great, dramatic and ongoing story.
And where else could you see it in a 50-mile drive? Well, in lots
of places. But the Black Canyon is a good place to start looking at
our contradictory past.