Protecting canyonlands: Anatomy of a national park struggle in southeastern Utah, USA

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© 2020 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. National parks have been called “America’s best idea”, but their creation and management never fail to stir controversy. On September 12, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill creating Canyonlands National Park (CANY). Instead of a preservation climax, however, the establishment of CANY simply opened a new chapter in the long-term effort to protect a much greater percentage of southeastern Utah’s canyon country. Over the next several decades, park enthusiasts and wilderness advocates sought to expand the boundaries of CANY, while agricultural interests and extractive industries lobbied vigorously to limit the influence of the National Park Service. In this paper, we use archival data and methods to reconstruct the story of CANY’s creation and review attempts since then to extend protections beyond the original park’s borders, seeking to understand the different social, political, and economic forces that aligned to propose—as well as the forces that rallied to contest—these expansion efforts. While our findings indicate that the stakeholders involved and the issues that drive them have changed little over the past sixty years, we also cite several examples of successful collaboration that could serve as guideposts for future conservation efforts, both in the U.S. and elsewhere.