Enough is enough at the Glen Canyon Recreation Area

 

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is a mess. Amazingly, it’s not so much from the reservoir that drowned it 50 years ago; it’s because of what the park’s visitors are doing to it today.

I say this because I’ve spent most of my career photographing wilderness areas in Grand Canyon, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and the greater Glen Canyon area, including Lake Powell. But at Glen Canyon the trash and vandalism has become so horrendous that I now see it as a second wave of sabotage.

I see the reservoir being ripped apart by the millions of boaters who visit it, who are out of control in a park that seems to tolerate almost any behavior short of murder. During workshops on the lake, many of my students have discovered many locations that lend themselves to wonderful photos; unfortunately, those places are gradually disappearing beneath a carpet of inscriptions, trash and fire scars.

There have been cutbacks in park funding, of course, but this park has never been particularly focused on preservation. Therefore, there’s been little law enforcement and little or no resource protection. Although some steps have been taken to stop the accumulation of such obvious horrors as toilet paper and even human feces, the endless efforts – including those of volunteers – to deal with tons of trash and the acres of graffiti that scar cliffs and slickrock are overwhelmed by the actions of the many vandals in their boats.

Fireworks are illegal in the park but nowadays are too often tolerated. Now, scars from flares and fireworks discolor the interiors of hidden alcoves and the tapestries made by desert varnish.

Big funding cuts have been imposed on Grand Canyon National Park, too, and yet this kind of vandalism and monkey business are not tolerated there. Along the river in Grand Canyon you won’t find half-buried bags of trash, feces or graffiti. Rafting companies love the place and enforce strict regulations. Why should Glen Canyon tolerate the abuse it constantly receives? 

As far as I can tell, Park Service officials do nothing or very little to stop the vandalism at Lake Powell. They say they do a lot, and perhaps they are correct, but I’ve never seen an example. Except for routine boat trips from Wahweap Marina to Dangling Rope Marina and Rainbow Bridge, there is almost no agency presence on most of Lake Powell. In my 40 years of boating here I have never seen a park ranger check on the activities of boaters parked in side canyons. The result: In the side canyons it’s a free-for-all.

Recently, a young woman was identified as the “artist” who painted crude faces on rock outcroppings in a number of Western national parks. Her actions ignited national outrage. But such vandalism occurs in Glen Canyon, usually in the form of carvings on soft sandstone, every summer day. 

Inattention from agency staffers has another effect: Too many visitors die tragically on Lake Powell. People not only drown; they also die in bloody boat crashes. It’s not hard to see why: Riding while precariously seated, reckless steering, bad boating judgment and illegal behavior are rampant, yet rarely are pilots slapped with citations. I’ve never seen any park employee pull over any of the hundreds of obvious violators.

Lake Powell is, of course, the quintessential example of 1950s poor environmental policy. But the vast majority of the artificially created Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, some 87 percent of the park, is not a “lake” at all but dry land. And these lands are extraordinary.

Glen Canyon is a gem of a park with endless archeological, paleontological, biologic, geologic and historic treasures. Fifty years ago, I hated the creation of Lake Powell and the inundation of Glen Canyon. Today, however, knowing what the dam created, I revere what remains beyond the reach of Lake Powell itself.

I would like to see the National Park Service focus on protecting what’s left at Glen Canyon. Its employees must somehow convey to boaters -- through publications, signage, ranger programs, reminders written and verbal at the park’s entrance stations, law enforcement contacts, tickets, warnings, whatever works -- that restraint and respect are just as important here as they are at Grand Canyon or Zion or Bryce national parks. I see no reason why Glen Canyon should be turned over to the blockheads and party animals of the world.

Glen Canyon, which conservationist David Brower called the “Place No One Knew,” is still magnificent and still a national treasure. Let’s stop the vandalism and destruction and neglect; let’s urge the Park Service to lead the way out of these years of apathy and negligence. We’ve have seen enough slob behavior leading to mutilated petroglyphs and defaced cliffs. Enough is enough. 

Gary Ladd is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a professional photographer based in Arizona.

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