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Science and Children >  > The Colorado Plateau > Management Challenges 

Management Challenges

Native Americans

The Colorado Plateau ecosystem faces many of the issues prevalent throughout the West: degradation of waterways, exotic plant infestations, and loss of habitat for wildlife and threatened and endangered species.  Complicating any approach to addressing these and other issues is the Plateau’s pattern of land administration.  This complex patchwork of jurisdictions, missions and management authorities includes: four states, a dozen Indian tribes, 34 counties, 225 communities, 26 national parks, monuments, national historic sites, and recreation areas, 15 national forests and 10 Bureau of Land Management districts.  Federal land comprises 55% of the Plateau; Indian Reservations 24% and state and local governments 6%.  Private lands amount to only 15%. 

The Colorado Plateau is undergoing an profound economic and demographic transformation.  The unique and magnificent landscape, studded with National Parks and promoted worldwide, attracts millions of visitors a year, many of them foreign. Meeting the demands of a tourism and amenities base is a shift from the traditional economy that was built largely upon resource commodities like timber, livestock forage, and timber. 

Both the traditional and amenity-based economies are dependent upon large tracts of Federal land.  On a national level, changing ideas about the importance and appropriate uses of public land are also affecting the traditional users.  Land managers are charged with accommodating uses that can be supported without degrading the health of the land and water.  Timber harvesting, mining, and livestock grazing have all been reduced, and in fact many of the ecosystem problems of today are inherited from bygone mismanagement.  Tourism is not without ecosystem impacts (below) but agencies have little authority by which it can be managed.  Land managers are working to find ways to balance properly managed commodity extraction with high public recreation use, and they rely on science to provide the guideposts on ecosystem health.


Mountain bikers pause to take in view along Kokopelli's Trail.
Frank Jensen, BLM
Named for the hunchbacked flute player of Native American culture, Kokopelli's Trail offers mountain bikers 225 km of roads that climb to 2800m.
While local economies in some ways welcome tourism as a source of income, communities are scrambling to adjust to the changes and provide visitor services.  Effects are felt ecosystem wide.  Small town water, sanitation, emergency and utility systems were not built to accommodate the present large transient populations lodging in new motels, eating in new restaurants, and getting lost or injured in unfamiliar back-country.  Visitors on foot, mountain bikes, jeeps, 4-wheel-drive vehicles, campers, and RV’s come to the Plateau looking for different kinds of recreation and demanding a wide variety of services. 

The impacts of tourism are far-reaching.  Many visitors concentrate in narrow canyon areas and trek over fragile cryptobiotic soils and damage riparian zones. Heavily used camping sites are eroded and despoiled with litter and human waste.  Riparian systems are under increasing demands for community water use.  Wildlife is displaced or disturbed during critical breeding times.  Native American sacred sites are subject to intrusions.

The Plateau’s archaeological sites (see poster back) are among the world’s most numerous, spectacular and well preserved, but visitation takes a heavy toll.  Standing masonry walls of prehistoric ruins, artifact scatters, rock drawings, and rock shelters are easily damaged or destroyed by uninformed or careless visitors.  Oily hands discolor and irreparably damage pictographs and petroglyphs; and campers and campfires inside rock shelters destroy fragile stratigraphy.  Artifact collectors walk away with evidence about prehistoric cultures.  Impacts to ancient cultural resources are forever; never again can a damaged site be made intact.

Quite simply, many places on the Plateau are being “loved to death”.  Visitors who care very much about the environment, but who are uneducated about the fragile nature of the Plateau’s ecosystem and cultural resources unwittingly cause many of these impacts.  Land managing agencies are taking different approaches to try and protect the fragile natural and cultural resources under their care. With reduced staffing and limited federal funding, agencies increasingly rely upon interagency collaboration, partnerships with local governments and organizations, and a network of volunteers.  Education efforts are underway too, so that the American public is aware of the issues concerning their public lands and so that they understand how to tread lightly when visiting this national treasure.




Whitewater rafters in Colorado Plateau river canyon
Brad Frank, BLM
The Colorado Plateau's many canyons provide rafting enthusiasts with both heart-stopping whitewater and wildlife-watching opportunities.
In an arid region, water is a focal point for humans, wildlife, plants and all other lifeforms.  Indeed, many of the problems on the Colorado Plateau have water as the nub of the controversy.  Issues surrounding use of the Colorado River, one of the nation’s great rivers and the main artery of the Colorado Plateau, are well known and long-standing.  It runs through seven U.S. states and Mexico, serving nearly 25 million people; there are many competing demands to use its water.  However, even the smallest trickle of water on the Plateau is an oasis and a potential point of conflict.

Most of the Plateau’s animal life and much of the plant life depend upon the thousands of miles of tiny streams and small rivers that ultimately feed the Colorado River.  The riparian areas, or green strips, that run alongside the streams and rivers are a focus of management concern.  These transition zones between permanently saturated soils and upland areas are the ecosystem’s circulatory system, carrying nutrients and purifying waste.  The condition of riparian systems affects the health and well being of the entire ecosystem and the plants and animals dependent upon it.

In the Colorado Plateau, degradation of riparian areas has come largely from intensive grazing activities at the beginning of the 20th century and poorly managed livestock grazing since then.  Other contributing factors include recreation impacts along heavily used trails, off-highway vehicle traffic, dam building and stream channeling, and groundwater withdrawals from wells.  Invasive exotic plants, particularly Tamarisk sp. (salt cedar) are a major problem in riparian areas; they out-compete native vegetation and usurp habitat for birds and animals.  The vagaries of western water law exacerbate riparian problems.  To exercise water rights, users are given incentives to consume, not conserve, water.  The water needs of wildlife, vegetation, and riparian systems are shortchanged.

Although recovery from these impacts is slow and in some cases may never occur, western land managers have committed to making restoration a priority.  As a first step, they are conducting Proper Functioning Condition (PFC) Assessments on riparian areas.  The PFC method is a field evaluation that analyzes a riparian-weland areas’ capability and potential.  Using a team approach, specialists examine vegetation, landforms, soils and hydrology to determine whether an area is functioning properly, at risk, or non-functional.

To tackle the invasive plant problem, the Southwest Exotic Plant Mapping Program (SWEMP) was established.  It is a collaborative program to develop a regional database of exotic plant infestations that are legally declared noxious or candidate noxious species in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.  SWEMP uses geographic information system (GIS) technology to create maps displaying the distribution of individual exotic plant species.  The SWEMP database is available via the Internet.

The Colorado River is penned by the Glen Canyon Dam, which forms a lake, Lake Powell, 300 km in length.  The effects on the Colorado River ecosystem have been dramatic. 

Before construction of the dam, the river had been a warm, muddy flow with tremendous seasonal fluctuations.  Once dammed, the river immediately became a clear flow of cold water, drawn from deep in the reservoir behind the dam and with a much different fluctuation pattern.  The sudden change to a flow of cold, clear water had a major impact on the warm-water native fish of the Colorado: humpback and bonytail chubs; razorback, bluehead and flannelmouth suckers; the Colorado squawfish; and the speckled dace.  All those natives are now either officially endangered or are being considered for listing except for the bluehead sucker and the speckled dace.  The effects of the dam have not all been negative: other, non-native cold water species--primarily rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout--have thrived.  In fact, the Glen Canyon stretch from Lees Ferry to the dam has become a renowned trout fishery.

Since construction of the Glen Canyon Dam the sandbar beaches along the river have been shrinking; in the past, silty floods seasonally renewed these features.  The absence of the seasonal high, dirty flows has been a boon for much of the plant life in the canyons, which grows much closer to the water than it could in the past.  The bad news is that the exotic Tamarisk now dominates the beach-plant community, undermining its diversity.  Shallow-rooted, the plants do not hold the beaches and sandbars against persistent erosion.

In 1996 an experiment was conducted to test a hypothesis that a sustained “floodflow”might stir up the sand and silt off the bottom of the main channel and redeposit it onto the bars and beaches.  Restoring these features would reestablish backwater breeding pools needed by the endangered native fishes, replenish the camping beaches, and water the mesquite, acacia and other native vegetation in the high-water zone.  The gates of Glen Canyon Dam were opened and the test “flood” began.  It remains to be seen how stable the new-formed deposits are, although preliminary results are encouraging.

Caption:  The Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax trailii extimus) was placed on the Federal Endangered Species list in 1993. Loss of riparian habitat has led to its decline over the last 100 years.  Ironically, since the Flycatcher can survive in Tamarisk stands, plant eradication efforts must be carefully conducted.



Today, mineral use on the Colorado Plateau is primarily oil and gas exploration and development and coal mining.  Many of the mining related problems here are really the legacy of past activity.  Uranium tailings, the leftovers from mining and milling, contain radioactive and other hazardous materials.  One such tailings pile is located on the floodplain of the Colorado River, several miles north of the town of Moab, Utah.  Years ago, the responsible company agreed to cap the pile in place and set aside a large bond to complete this work.  Recent water quality data shows that dangerous heavy metals and radioactive contaminants are leaching into the river through the groundwater system.  Local, state and downstream entities now would like the tailings to be removed and buried in a safer place, away from groundwater.  Unfortunately, while an agreement is being crafted the tailings continue to contaminate ground water

The Colorado Plateau is covered with abandoned mines, remnants of the intense search for gold, silver, and other precious minerals in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  A large number of these mines are on public lands that have come under the management of the Federal government only in recent years.  Unfortunately, the location and nature of early mining activities on these lands is often poorly documented.  Federal agencies are conducting efforts to locate and reclaim historic mine sites that pose safety risks to the public or present serious threats to the environment.  Even mines that have been located and properly abandoned are sometimes vandalized, entered, and left open, thereby potentially exposing others to unexpected serious risks.  It’s very easy to become lost in a mine’s honeycomb of horizontal and vertical openings that followed ore veins.  Other common hazards include open shafts dropping several hundred meters, rotted support structures, deadly gases and lack of oxygen, explosives, toxic chemicals, and, (in the case of surface mines) high walls and open pits.

However, these mines are beneficial to the ecosystem in one way.  Many of North America’s largest remaining bat populations now roost in mines, which often provide microclimates similar to caves.  These bat populations include more than half of the 43 bat species living in the continental United States and some of the largest populations of endangered bats.  Mines are key sites for rearing young in summer, for hibernating in winter, and for use as temporary havens.  They can also serve as crucial migratory rest stops in the spring and fall. Bat-accessible mine closure gates support bat populations, which in turn reduce other problems.  Bats are the primary predators of night-flying insects, many of which attack agricultural products and forests.  For example, a single little brown bat can catch 600 mosquito-sized insects an hour.  A colony of Mexican free-tailed bats living in the old Orient Mine in Colorado consumes nearly two tons of insects nightly.


Native Americans

Well-preserved, 1000-year-old cliff dwelling in southeastern Utah
Shelley Smith

A well preserved cliff dwelling in southeastern Utah, about 1000 years old.
Native Americans have long been residents of the Colorado Plateau.  The Navajo Nation, the largest tribe, is centered in northeastern Arizona, with holdings in northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah. Many Indian people live in two worlds, participating in modern American society and maintaining traditional beliefs and practices.  Historically relegated to reservations, tribal people once called vast areas home, and today sites and resources that are significant to them are located on off-reservation lands.  Energy resources (oil, gas and coal) that are owned by tribes but managed by other agencies are of concern to tribal governments.  Tribal governments and land managing agencies are working more closely to coordinate management practices that affect sacred sites or areas where Native Americans traditionally gathered plant foods and materials. 



Last updated: 11-13-2009