The Colorado Canyons National Conservation Area is a collage of natural wonders, a place where the Colorado Plateau is sculpted into rugged sandstone canyons, natural arches, spires, and alcoves. Some of the canyons are almost 1,000 feet deep, with spectacular red rock cliffs. Spring runoff and summer thunderstorms create glistening waterfalls and plunge pools. Winding through this enchanted landscape are 24 miles of the Colorado River. The river separates the 75,550 acre Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness from the NCA's non-wilderness lands. The area totals more than 122,000 acres.
Vegetation in the meandering canyon bottoms of this NCA includes pinyon-juniper, grasses, and cottonwoods, willow and box elder. The upland mesas contain dense stands of pinyon-juniper with some sagebrush parks. Cryptobiotic soils, living soil crusts dominated by cyanobacteria, are well developed in the upland area. Cyanobacteria, previously called blue-green algae and one of the earth's oldest examples of life, form sheaths that protect against erosion, fix nitrogen for plants, and intercept and store moisture in dry desert environments.
Mule deer, elk, black bear, and desert bighorn sheep live in the Canyons. Yellow and black Scott's orioles and tail-flipping gray vireos are the specialty bird species in the NCA, and bald eagles and peregrine falcons are often seen along the Colorado River.
Recreation and Science in the NCA
Visitors to the park enjoy rafting and kayaking through canyons on the Colorado River, camping in Rabbit Valley, hiking to places like Rattlesnake Arches, and mountain biking on designated trails. The Trail Through Time takes visitors to an ancient watering hole (140 million years old) that is now an active dinosaur quarry where dinosaurs remains--including Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, Brachiosaurs, Camarasaurus, Ceratosaurus, Allosaurus, and Nodosaurus--have been found. Another popular recreational opportunity is viewing ancient Native rock art panels. These panels were left behind by the Fremont Indians who made their home along McDonald Creek almost 1,000 years ago, where they found shelter, water, and food along the cliffs.
Protecting the NCA
Serious and growing problems include loss of "natural quiet" in the area, damage from motorized vehicles, and degradation from livestock grazing.
There are growing conflicts between river rafters, kayakers, and anglers, and jet ski users on the Colorado River. BLM data shows that motorized use generates the single largest number of complaints from visitors, though it accounts for only about 14 percent of river use. Similarly, BLM is considering building new motorized access routes in some areas with wilderness values, which would ruin the opportunities for "quiet" recreation there.
Cattle grazing, a legitimate use on public lands, is now permitted on 85 percent of the Colorado Canyons NCA. The desert habitats of the area, however, receive scant rainfall every year and are very sensitive to activities that impact the land surface. Domestic sheep, which graze in the area, are also harder on the land than cattle and could introduce disease to the wild bighorn sheep herds that use the area. Grazing needs to be managed in a manner that restores and preserves the land health.
Currently, the BLM is developing a management plan for the Colorado Canyons NCA and Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness that will determine how this area is managed for years to come. This is a great opportunity to let the BLM know that you want the area preserved; see their planning site for more on ways to get involved in the planning process, and contact the conservation groups below for more information or help in getting involved in protecting this area.