One national park could tell the truth about the West

  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.

But the Black Canyon has been in the news lately, not because of its dramatic beauty, but because of the cracks in our contradictory park-creation policy.

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."

This annual 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.

The 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 dueling, mission.

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.

Black Canyon 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 rivers.

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.

George Sibley is a writer, teacher and director of the regional Headwaters conference held at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado.