We launched our rafts on the Yampa River at Deer Lodge Park, lunched at Stubs Cabin, stayed at Ponderosa Camp and ran Little Joe and Big Joe rapids.
On our second afternoon, we pulled into Mather’s Hole Camp under an overhung cliff wall 500 feet above us. As I set up my tent in blessed shade on clean, white sand, I thought about Dinosaur National Monument’s 100th birthday this year and Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service.
A successful businessman, Mather started 20 Mule Team Borax in Death Valley, California, to sell soap. To encourage customers, he wrote letters to newspapers across the country posing as a happy housewife extolling the virtues of Borax. His marketing scheme worked. He became a young millionaire, but Mather remained restless with his good fortune and continually sought outdoor experiences. While visiting Yosemite National Park in the early 1900s, what he saw appalled him.
Cattle tromped along rivers and streams. Sheep skinned the high country. Car campers parked everywhere. Trash was strewn about. Outraged, he wrote Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane about the poor condition of the national parks. Another Californian, Lane wrote back to Mather, “Dear Steve, If you don’t like the way the national parks are being run, why don’t you come to Washington and run them yourself.”
Tall and handsome with piercing blue eyes and a rugged outdoorsman’s physique, Mather became a commanding presence. Reporters claimed Mather had an “incandescent enthusiasm” and “an eight-cylinder 60-mile-per-hour sort of personality,” which was exactly what was needed to transcend legislative lethargy.
Congress had voted for national parks. Presidents had established national monuments, but no unifying system integrating progressive management yet existed. Mather campaigned to change that, and in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, creating the National Park Service.
Next year is the centennial of the National Park Service, but this year is the 100th birthday of Dinosaur National Monument, also signed into law by President Wilson. A key element of the Organic Act is the language that all units of the national park system “should be left unimpaired for future generations.” Mather’s vision helped produce that emphatic statement.
As I set up my tent in Mather’s Hole and then walked to the riverside for dinner with other travelers on a History Colorado expedition, I thought about what we’d seen and the pristine nature of Dinosaur’s rivers. Originally, President Wilson set aside the Dinosaur quarry near Jensen, Utah, as an 80-acre tract. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt added the Green and Yampa River Canyons. The monument’s boundaries now include seven ecosystems and 210,000 acres of some of the wildest river and canyon country in the nation.
On Dinosaur’s rivers, no motors are allowed, so rafters enjoy the silence, solitude and darkness of a pure wilderness experience. Campsites are assigned so river runners know exactly how many miles they need to paddle each day. Visitors discover animal and bird tracks on sandy beaches, hear the shrill cry of peregrine falcons, spy osprey and see mule deer, trophy-size elk and bighorn sheep at river’s edge. Even moose have wandered into Island Park.
Proof of Dinosaur’s wildness has been the successful re-introduction of bighorn sheep, which had been killed out by lungworm and poachers. In the 1950s, the National Park Service brought 20 bighorn into Lodore Canyon, and two decades later, the NPS traded peregrine falcons for sheep from Poudre Canyon to re-populate Whirlpool Canyon all the way to Split Mountain. Because bighorns have no natural predators that come from water, paddlers can drift closely by sheep along riverbanks, and they show no alarm.
In Dinosaur, rafting groups learn “river time” to relax and “go with the flow” under cliff walls carved by oceans that grew and receded a dozen times. Here is an opportunity for adventure, teamwork, self-reliance, personal responsibility and family fun floating beneath the nests of cliff swallows and listening to the descending musical notes of canyon wrens.
Yes, Dinosaur has plenty to celebrate for its 100th birthday, but we need to do more. Harper’s Corner on the Colorado side has one of the best night skies in the country because it is miles from a light source. Wilderness river trips create floating communities of friends, and we need wilderness to help maintain the unique qualities of our American character.
In 1956, the conservation community rallied to stop a dam at Echo Park and Split Mountain and the modern environmental movement was born. Now, for its 100th birthday, it is time to give Dinosaur a few presents.
Only God can make a tree, but only Congress can make a wilderness. The 90 percent of Dinosaur that is roadless should be federally designated as wilderness in both Colorado and Utah. That takes an act of Congress. Dinosaur should be touted as one of America’s great wilderness parks. Equally important, the Yampa River, which begins and ends in Colorado, should be congressionally designated as a Wild and Scenic River to protect its flow through the monument.
The Yampa is the last undammed river on the entire 256,000 square miles of the Colorado Plateau. Four endangered fish, the pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpbacked chub and bonytail chub, desperately need the pulse flows and warm water cobble bars of a natural flowing river to survive. Because of our decades-long orgy of dam building, there are only two places left in the world where these 2-million-year-old endangered fish spawn.
We stood on one of those cobble bars as the Yampa quietly swirled at river-right. We pondered what blend of water, temperature, stream flows and side-canyon sediment deposition makes this stretch unique. Nature has its secrets we do not yet understand.
“What is going to happen to this water? Where is it going to go?” a concerned park ranger asked me. A Wild and Scenic River designation “would add a significant layer of protection” to the canyons’ rivers added the ranger. I agree.
For Dinosaur’s 100th birthday this year, and for the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016, let’s do more than just celebrate the past. Let’s take decisive action to preserve one of the unique ecosystems in the West and a special park shared by two states.
As stars poured over the cliff, the Yampa’s lapping sounds echoed off of the canyon wall in Mather’s Hole. That night in my tent, I thought of Stephen Mather, his dedication and his vision. He left us the 20th-century legacy of an outstanding National Park System. Now, in the 21st century, it is our turn to further preservation goals for parks. Wilderness and Wild and Scenic River designations for Dinosaur would be lasting achievements.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at g[email protected]