We launched our rafts on Colorado’s Yampa River at Deerlodge Park, and ran Little Joe and Big Joe Rapids.
On the second afternoon, we pulled into Mathers Hole Camp under an overhung cliff wall that towered 500 feet above us.
As I set up my tent, I thought about the 100th birthday of Dinosaur National Monument, which we celebrate this year, and remembered the life of Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service.
A successful businessman, Mather started 20 Mule Team Borax in Death Valley, Calif., to sell soap. To encourage customers, he wrote letters to newspapers all across the country, posing as a happy housewife extolling the virtues of Borax. His marketing scheme worked and he became a millionaire at a youthful age.
But Mather was restless and continually sought outdoor experiences. When he visited Yosemite National Park in the early 1900s, however, he was appalled by what he saw.
Cattle tromped along rivers and streams. Sheep skinned off the high country. Car campers parked everywhere and anywhere, leaving their trash strewn about.
Outraged, Mather wrote Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane to complain about the poor condition of the national parks. Lane, a fellow Californian, wrote back to him: “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?” And that’s what Mather did.
Tall and handsome, with piercing blue eyes and a rugged outdoorsman’s physique, Mather had a commanding presence.
Although Congress had voted for national parks and presidents had established national monuments, there was no unifying system of management. Mather campaigned to change that and, in 1916, his campaign succeeded. President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, creating the National Park Service.
A key element of the law is its language, which clearly states that all units of the National Park System “should be left unimpaired for future generations.” Mather’s vision helped produce that strong statement, but it’s a goal that has always come under pressure – especially during these years of increasing visitation.
As I set up the tent at Mathers Hole and then walked to the riverside for dinner with other travelers, I thought about what we’d seen and about the pristine nature of Dinosaur’s rivers.
Originally, President Woodrow Wilson set aside only the Dinosaur quarry near Jensen, Utah, an 80-acre tract.
In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt added the Green and Yampa River canyons to the monument, whose boundaries now include 210,000 acres of some of the wildest river and canyon country in the nation.
Fifty-nine years ago, Dinosaur found itself making national news. After federal dams proposed for Dinosaur through Echo Park and Split Mountain, many people – led by the Sierra Club’s David Brower – protested and the dams were blocked. The successful effort helped mark the birth of the modern environmental movement.
In our time, two major actions would further protect and enhance the monument, but only the U.S. Congress has the power to make this happen. Congress could designate as wilderness the 90 percent of the monument in Colorado and Utah that is roadless, and Congress could also designate the Yampa River, which begins and ends in Colorado, as a wild and scenic river, which would protect its flow through the monument.
The Yampa is the last undammed river on the entire 240,000 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.
For Dinosaur’s 100th birthday this year, and for the centennial of the National Park Service next year, let’s do more than just celebrate past achievements. Let’s take decisive action to preserve one of the West’s unique ecosystems.
As stars poured over the cliff that night in Mathers Hole, the Yampa’s lapping sounds echoed off the canyon wall. I thought again of Stephen Mather – his vision and his fierce determination to get things done.
His legacy was the creation of an outstanding national park system that’s the envy of European countries and a magnet that attracts tourists from all over the world.
Now, in the 21st century, it is our turn to further protect our parks. Wilderness and wild and scenic river designations for Dinosaur would be wonderful achievements.
Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.