Saving Utah’s Desolation Canyon: A new fate for this rafter’s mecca

Desolation Canyon. Photo by Alex Daue.

Eastern Utah’s famed Desolation Canyon is well known as many things: rafter’s playground, archeological treasure trove, icon of the Old West. Now this emphatically rugged stretch of the Green River adds conservation history to its lore.

On July 30, after years of negotiation, conservation groups, led by our partner the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, resolved a long-running struggle over natural gas drilling around Desolation Canyon, one of the wildest stretches of river land in the U.S. West.

Related to this story

Why our agreement for Desolation Canyon is a victory

Press release announcing agreement


Through the historic agreement, we were able to prevent widespread development of natural gas leases that were given to a Denver-based oil and gas company during the Bush administration.

The Bill Barrett Corporation already had rights to drill for natural gas in the West Tavaputs Plateau on the western side of Desolation Canyon. However, because of the agreement, they will now keep drill pads out of proposed Wilderness areas around Desolation Canyon and away from the canyon’s many Native American archeological sites, including in Nine Mile Canyon, a tributary canyon whose walls host the nation’s largest collection of Native American rock art.

We were able to convince the Bill Barrett Corporation to walk away from the vast majority of their leases and to agree to specific precautions in others so that these lands can be protected as designated Wilderness someday. Natural gas extraction will be done through a combination of technology to keep activities underground, keep drilling sites out of sight, and through additional measures to protect air quality. The approach will safeguard the region’s most special and sensitive areas from damaging drilling and air pollution.

The canyon’s iconic views of formidable red rock cliffs, multicolored rock spires and juniper-dotted slopes will remain much as they were when John Wesley Powell first explored the Green River and gave Desolation Canyon its modern day name.

We fought long and hard to protect the West Tavaputs Plateau, including a lawsuit for Nine Mile Canyon that led to important protections for that area. Without this agreement we would be continuing to fight drilling on every acre of this spectacular landscape rich with culture.

Free to remain wild

Today, Desolation Canyon, carved by the Green River, remains one of the most remote and rugged stretches of river in the U.S. West.

Rafters in Desolation Canyon, Utah. Photo by Alex Daue.In fact, ‘Deso,’ as known to rafters, is one of the more special rafting trips in the West. A magical mix of timeless canyon scenery, relatively mellow waters and opportunities to hike and explore rich remnants of Native American and Old West history, make the trip especially popular for families and youth groups.

When not on the water these visitors enjoy exploring Deso’s cottonwood shaded beaches and the canyon’s many tributaries and alcoves. Here the only manmade signs of time are occasional homesteads left from settler days and an incredible collection of ancient Fremont Indian rock art. The canyon and its tributary canyons are truly a living museum with more than 1,000 examples of rock art, cliff dwellings and archeological sites in the tributary Nine Mile Canyon alone. Reminders of the days when outlaws like Butch Cassidy used the canyon to hide from the law can be seen as well.

In 1969, Desolation Canyon was designated a National Historic Landmark. Despite this designation, the area’s fragile historical reminders and unblemished wildness came under threat during the Bush era. Under the Bush administration, Desolation Canyon and the surrounding West Tavaputs Plateau became one of many prized Utah public lands that were rushed to the oil and gas leasing block with limited or bypassed environmental review.

A new model for balanced land use

As originally planned, BBC would have set up 225 surface drill pad locations in proposed wilderness areas, certain to create wildlife fragmentation, heavy traffic and pollution and other negative impacts to the surrounding land. Now, under the July 30 agreement, only five locations will be developed in these wilderness-quality lands, a significant reduction, while the placement of gates on several remote dirt roads will ensure that fragile archaeological sites, wildlife, and wilderness values are protected from excessive traffic.

We and our partners believe these lands deserve to be permanently protected  by Congress as designated Wilderness, but until we achieve those protections this agreement is critical to ensure the region is not inundated with drills and industrial equipment, which could disqualify the land from such permanent Wilderness protections.

We think the Tavaputs Agreement is a huge step and one that we achieved based on our hard work and support from our members to show the Bureau of Land Management and the oil and gas industry that they needed to protect the West Tavaputs Plateau and Desolation Canyon.

Wildlife in Desolation Canyon. Photo by Alex Daue.

Not only is this great news for those who cherish Utah’s rugged southwest canyons, but it is also a new and rare example of conservation groups, oil and gas interests, and local governments working together to balance energy development with conservation needs on public lands.

“We see this agreement between the conservation community and the Bill Barrett Corporation as a good model as we move forward with the new approach to managing oil and gas as just one of the many uses of our public lands” said Senior Counsel and BLM Action Center Director for the Wilderness Society, Nada Culver. “It shows that there is room for both oil and gas development and wilderness protection.”

This agreement has the support of other groups who have struggled to protect places like Nine Mile Canyon and the rest of the West Tavaputs Plateau because it provides meaningful protections for the scenic views, wilderness experience and cultural history of these lands. Those groups include the Colorado Plateau Archeological Alliance, Nine Mile Canyon Coalition and the National Parks Conservation Association.  The agreement was also supported by the state of Utah, the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, and Carbon County, where Desolation Canyon is located.

Desolation Canyon. Photo by Alex Daue.
Rafters in Desolation Canyon, Utah. Photo by Alex Daue.
Wildlife in Desolation Canyon. Photo by Alex Daue.