Surprises Abound in Desolation Canyon Rafting Trip

Researchers stop along Desolation Canyon, which is at risk to natural gas drilling, Utah. Photo by Alex Daue.

High on the Colorado Plateau, the Green River meanders through the spectacular Flaming Gorge and Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument before descending into the magnificent, red-rock Desolation Canyon.

In July, I set out with BLM Action Center colleague Phil Hanceford and Central Rockies Regional Director Suzanne Jones to study the astoundingly rich archaeological resources of the canyon. With ancient rock art and still-standing granaries and artifacts like arrowheads and moccasins studding the landscape, ever-expanding nearby natural gas drilling threatens the future of these irreplaceable treasures.

Rafting the Green River to learn how to protect the precious and wild Desolation Canyon, our team — including leader Jerry Spangler, Executive Director of Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance (CPAA); allies from Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service; and artists, journalists, and University of Utah archaeology professors - spent seven days surveying sites brimming with petroglyphs and ancient dwellings. [link to BLM, and USFS]

In a jaw-dropping landscape of sweeping cliff bands, creaking cottonwood groves, the powerful Green River, sweet sage, bighorn sheep, deer, bears, and soaring cranes, it was not surprising to learn that generations of people had chosen Desolation Canyon as their home. Today, the canyon draws thousands of boaters each year who come to bask in the beauty of the canyon, delight in the excitement of the rapids, and marvel at rock art and artifacts, reminders of the rich culture that once thrived here.

Large rock art panel in West Tavaputs Plateau, threatened by intensive natural gas development, Utah. Photo by Phil Hanceford.Though our group enjoyed all of those things, too, our goal was clear, and we worked hard each day to document the archaeology of the canyon. Evidence of the Ute, Fremont, Ancestral Puebloan and pre-Archaic cultures abound here, and our team of experts easily found site after site in need of study. The most amazing thing about the trip was the diverse group it brought together. From CPAA staff and BLM rangers to conservationists from The Wilderness Society, these people gathered out of a love for the canyon and a desire to protect these wildlands and their priceless resources.

The historical and cultural value of these lands and artifacts is underscored by their extremely fragile nature. The potential destruction oil and gas development could cause makes the need to document and protect this place ever more urgent. I’m back at our Denver office, but our Desolation Canyon work hasn’t stopped — we continue to work to improve BLM’s plans to manage the area. With the recent recollection of floating down the river, the sun illuminating the many treasures between those walls of the canyon, we hope now more than ever that this spectacular wildland will be protected for generations to come.