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 and not much 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 quantification 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."

They need this annual flood, 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's not surprising that there are more than 400 opponents, people who depend on the regular flows, to the Park Service claim. From the other side comes a suit by environmental organizations against the Interior Department and State of Colorado that 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 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 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 Harper’s Ferry Historical Park is another good place to visit, examining an explosive nexus in America’s racial ambiguity.

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 versus mining, public-land grazing versus "Cattle Free," forest clear-cuts versus zero cut, dams versus 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 contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer, teacher and director of the regional Headwaters conference held at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...