Grand Staircase-Escalante is Utah’s real-life Jurassic Park

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Photo: Bureau of Land Management, flickr

A new dinosaur discovery at Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument serves notice that protecting wildlands also protects their natural history.

There are already lots of good reasons to keep our wildlands safe. Now, add one more to the list: to protect dinosaurs.

Indeed, as the recent discovery of a new species, Lythronax argestes, at southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument makes clear, some of our carefully-preserved public lands have a unique paleontological legacy.

The new dinosaur, whose name means "Gore King from the Southwest," is thought to be a close ancestor of Tyrannosaurus rex, making it a major find. Only a tiny fraction of the Grand Staircase-Escalante area has been excavated by paleontologists, but it has already proven unusually fruitful, yielding the only known specimen of a new Triceratops ancestor in 1998 among other fossils. Experts think there are many more bones waiting to be unearthed in the once-swampy region these dinosaurs inhabited eons ago. By one account, the Grand Staircase-Escalante’s tallest plateau, the Kaiparowits, could contain "the best and most continuous record of Late Cretaceous terrestrial life in the world."

A monumental achievement

Grand Staircase-Escalante. Photo: Bureau of Land Management, flickr

Grand Staircase-Escalante. Photo: Bureau of Land Management, flickr

The area that holds these remarkable pieces of natural history has more going for it than bones.

Utah’s Jurassic Park—Cretaceous Park, actually—is a nearly two-million-acre protected area of the Colorado Plateau administered by the Bureau of Land Management. A few hundred miles south of Salt Lake City and east of Las Vegas, it is a favorite hiking spot, featuring steep stone staircases, claustrophobic "slot canyons" and rushing rivers. The rocky landscape itself is a significant drawing card; as a report published by the Utah Geological Association put it, "Nowhere else in the world are the rocks and geologic features so well exposed, so brilliantly colored, and so excitingly displayed." 

Its living wildlife includes mountain lions, bighorn sheep, river otters and pronghorn antelopes. Long before paleontologists began digging around the Grand Staircase-Escalante, the Anasazi--progenitors of New Mexico’s present-day Puebloan, Hopi and Zuni people--also called it home.

But while the Grand Staircase-Escalante has been a beloved place for generations, it was not always officially protected like one. It took until 1996, when President Bill Clinton designated the area as a national monument under the authority of the Antiquities Act, which was designed to safeguard naturally, culturally and historically significant lands. That act has been used by 16 presidents, including President Barack Obama, who tabbed five new national monuments in 2013. The Wilderness Society works with partners at the local level to identify sites that would be a good fit for this level of protection, which is a balance between careful development and stewardship.

Southern Utah's wildlands are among the world's most beautiful, but many of these striking landmarks are still at risk from oil and gas drilling and other incursion. As the Wilderness Society works to permanently protect some of the most vulnerable spots in Utah and elsewhere, it's worth remembering that these special places stretch back through history, sometimes containing treasures millions of years in the making.