Special Features and Perspectives
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument protects a broad expanse of arid wilderness in Utah's spectacular canyon country. Colorful badlands, sagebrush basins, water-carved canyons of impossible shape, and remote ridges dotted with pinyon pine and juniper harbor the kind of natural quiet absent elsewhere in the lower 48 states. Solitude, space, and rugged beauty abound in this desert Monument totaling more than 1.7 million acres, which include approximately 900,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas.
Overgrazing, uncontrolled off-road vehicle use, and lack of funds for ORV enforcement and purchase of private land inholdings. See "Protecting the Monument," below.
More about the Monument
The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument joins three distinct and gorgeous areas: the Grand Staircase, the Kaiparowits Plateau and the Canyons of the Escalante, and is the second largest National Monument in the lower 48. The Grand Staircase terraces rise in technicolor cliffs aptly named Vermilion, White, Gray and Pink, and illuminate 200 million years of the earth's history. In the Grand Staircase, the Paria River has carved deep valleys and narrow slot canyons, leaving isolated mesas and towering buttes. The Kaiparowits Plateau is made up of rugged canyons and jagged cliffs, and is some of the wildest and most remote country to be found in the United States. And in the Canyons of the Escalante are wide exposures of Navajo Sandstone (also called slickrock) into which the Escalante River has carved deep, winding canyons. Descending from the desert above, one is plunged into a world of sheer, salmon colored cliffs, fertile riparian habitats, and natural bridges.
Other than a few isolated springs and creeks, the broad canyons and sheer cliffs seem inhospitable. Yet even in this harsh landscape are forested benches, thousand year-old junipers and a rich variety of mammals and birds. Because of the area's remoteness and isolation, many plant species have evolved virtually unaltered by human interference.
The Monument's Scientific and Archaeological Treasure Trove
When he established Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, President Clinton set aside an area that contains anywhere from 18,000 to 100,000 archeological sites. Humans have used the lands for at least 8,000 years, beginning with the nomadic Archaics. By 400 CE both the Anasazi and Fremont peoples had settled in the region, evidenced by pithouses, adobe pueblos and some larger villages. Both tribes grew maize and beans and hunted deer, bighorn sheep and rabbits. Several sites represent a rare cultural mingling of the two tribes. Around 1000 CE several new tribes moved into the area, including the Shoshone, ancestors of the Southern Paiutes, Navajo and Apache as well as Kayenta Pueble peoples. Southern Paiutes consider the Monument area their tribal homeland.
Spanish explorers and aggressive bands of Navajos and Utes beseiged the Paiutes until the Mormons established settlements in the area during the 1860's. Land conflicts arose between Mormon settlers and native tribes, although occasionally the groups worked together cooperatively. John Wesley Powell discovered and named the Escalante River in 1872. By the turn of the century livestock operations were the basis of the local economy in towns bordering the Monument.
Paleontologists also treasure the Monument. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument contains fossils which have yielded more information about land-based ecosystem change at the end of the dinosaur era than almost any other place in the world. While theories already exist about the disappearance of the dinosaurs, one more answer may be locked in the stones of the Monument.
Protecting the Monument
Overgrazing destroys vegetation and off-road vehicle use damages the delicate soils of the Monument; there are not enough rangers, nor sufficient signs, to enforce off-road restrictions. The Monument is particularly vulnerable because much of the ground cover in Grand Staircase is "microbiotic crust," comprised of cyanobacteria, soil mosses and lichens, algae, fungi and bacteria. This living soil protects the soil underneath from wind and erosion and is very fragile. These crusts form the foundation upon which much of the ecosystem depends.
Remote as the area seems, development is a viable threat. Several key parcels of sensitive land in Grand Staircase-Escalante are privately owned; without money for acquisition, land like Calf Creek, could become home to motels and fast food chains right in the heart of the Monument.