In the middle of Utah's Canyonlands National Park, more than fifty miles of backcountry roads from the closest town of Moab, I stumble across a dance floor. It lies only a few hundred yards from the Green River, and although large parts of the cement floor are covered by reddish alluvial dirt, it looks to be some 500 square feet. That's a big dance for the middle of nowhere.
The 360-degree panorama is phenomenal: distant horizons with shapely buttes, backdrops of White Rim Sandstone walls, and the Green River itself, flowing quietly but powerfully a short distance away. The dance floor sits near an old river meander encountered by John Wesley Powell in 1869. He called it "Bonita Bend" after the Spanish word for lovely. The concrete floor was laid years ago (before the national park was established in 1964) to help make Bonita Bend a tourist destination. That plan didn't work out, but the floor was used for years as part of the "Friendship Cruise," a Memorial Day boating extravaganza begun in 1958. At its height, more than 600 boats would race from the town of Green River, down the Green to its confluence with the Colorado River, and then power upstream to finish at Moab, a distance of 184 miles.
Low water levels have largely put an end to the motorized boat race, but people used to really party it up at Bonita Bend. Some boaters continued downstream when they reached the Colorado, propelling themselves into the rapids of Cataract Canyon with sometimes tragic consequences. Three people died in 1993 when they entered the canyons big rapids.
This dance floor story is one of several I've heard over the past few days about ways people have tried to develop Canyonlands. I am on a river trip with my dad and a small group of dedicated river runners and wilderness protectors spanning three generations. I hear about activism for environmental protection in the 1970s, the 1990s, and the 2000s. If there's one thing that characterizes all the stories, it's that there's no resting on laurels. Even "protected" lands face a constant onslaught of proposals to exploit one resource or another, and the stakes are getting higher.
Scientists are inventing terms like the Anthropocene and the sixth mass extinction to describe the eco-geo-bio cataclysm they are seeing in their data, whether they are looking at ice cores, tree rings, ocean currents, atmospheric carbon, or shifting animal and plant populations. A new report from the Zoological Society of London and the World Wildlife Fund states that global wildlife populations have fallen by almost 60 percent since 1970. So how is environmental activism changing? How does the work of someone like my dad, who fought battles to create wilderness in the 1970s, relate to the actions of climate activists today? This trip gave me an opportunity to find out.
John Weisheit, Colorado Riverkeeper and conservation director for the organization Living Rivers, has arranged for eight of us to get together on this six-and-a-half-day oars-only river trip. We put in at Mineral Bottom, a boat launch on the Green River about forty miles from Moab, to...