A HISTORICAL SKETCH OF THE SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION OF THE REGION CONTAINING THE GRAND STAIRCASE-ESCALANTE NATIONAL MONUMENT
Steven H. Heath, Department of
Mathematics, Southern Utah University
Cedar City, UT 84720
heath @ suu.edu
For more than a century, the remote unexplored regions of southern Utah and northern Arizona along the Colorado River have been a magnet for the scientifically curious. The region has a "rich history" as the Monument's proclamation declares. This is a history which was, for the most part, promoted by inquiring scientists and naturalists. John Wesley Powell explored the canyons of the Colorado River and sought to read "a Book of Revelation in the rock-leaved Bible of geology." Powell explored the southern edge of the the Monument and the area along the Paria River, but his primary focus was on the Colorado River.
Powell's colleagues penetrated deeper into the region containing the new national monument. Almon Thompson explored the northern edges of the current park boundaries in 1872. From the eastern slopes of the Boulder Mountain, he mapped and named many of the main features in the park. The Escalante River was the last river mapped in the United States and the Henry Mountains were the last major mountain range. In 1875, G.K. Gilbert sought to understand the geology of the Henry Mountains. He explored the northern slopes of the Fifty-Mile Mountain (The Kaiparowits) and had a close-up view of the labyrinth of canyons which drain into the Escalante River. Clarence Dutton from the Kaibab Mountain in Arizona saw and named the succession of giant geological steps, "The Grand Staircase", from the Vermilion Cliffs at the base to the Pink Cliffs at Bryce Canyon.
Despite their thoroughness, there was too much to explore and to write about. By the turn of the century a new generation of scientist came to understand and unlock the secrets of this remote and intriguing land. The single most important was the USGS geologist, Herbert E. Gregory. Gregory devoted his professional life writing and exploring southern Utah. His great studies also contained extraordinary historical sketches of the geologic science in the Grand Staircase-Escalante park region. His geologic studies were complimented by the pioneering work of Neil Judd in archaeology.
Their work led to recommendations that the region be set aside as national monument in 1935. The original proposal asked for nearly 7000 square miles; an area which includes nearly all of the present park, Canyonlands National Park and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Because of political considerations and the potential for dams in Glen Canyon, the final recommendations were never made.
In 1956, Congress passed legislation for the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. The result was another round of scientific and historical studies. Jesse Jennings studied the archaeology of the Glen Canyon and surrounding areas and Gregory Crampton studied and wrote the history of the region before it was flooded with the waters of Lake Powell.
Lake Powell brought further scientific studies to the region because it provided for potential water resources and an infrastructure of roads, power, etc. which made the development of natural resources, particularly coal, possible. The scientific studies of the Kaiparowits indicated it contained one of the nations greatest coal reserves. At the same time, the 1964 Wilderness Act brought the interest of the environmental groups and world awareness of the region's scenic and pristine beauty. With President Clinton's designation in September 1996, a new round of scientific studies of the region began. The new park offers the historian a wonderful place to study the history of science. Those seeking to use the Monument's great resources for study should understand some of that history.