Chris Roams

Travel, Adventures, and Photography

Exposure Part Deux

I woke up this morning (one of the warmest yet) and was planning to head to Vegas to dodge the predicted snow but based on previous experience in Moab I decided to take a gamble of my own and headed east to Kanab instead. I need to get in a few days of work and its been over a week since I’ve slept under a roof so I’ll get a motel to hide out in. All of the various electronics I’m lugging with me could use a good charge too, I’ve been charging things haphazardly on the bike but this is difficult given the limited space, especially for the laptops which don’t seem to charge if they’re below freezing. Kanab happens to be the location of the BLM office that issues permits for The Wave and Buckskin Gulch, 2 of my objectives. Permits for The Wave are especially difficult to get so hanging out here in town for a few days will afford multiple opportunities to score a permit.

I originally named yesterday’s post “Exposure” for the mountaineering term indicating how sheltered (or rather not sheltered) a climbing route is. In this case the subject was the final knife-edge hike/scramble out to Angels Landing which was very exposed. (A secondary meaning of “exposure” is also covered by the fact that I changed pants at a picnic table in the trailhead parking lot but as I was told: “you’re alone on a motorcycle, you’re allowed to do whatever you want”). Today the trip out of Zion took me back east through the tunnel and I stopped to hike up to the headwall and take another picture overlooking Pine Creek which resulted in another definition of exposure. I wasn’t happy with the picture from my ride in due to the clouds, the sun was hiding and it was just a dimly lit day. Today the sun was out but in its typical winter fashion was only illuminating one wall of the canyon. The contrast between the bright wall on one side and the shaded wall on the other was just too much for the camera to capture, either one wall would be overexposed or the other would be underexposed, and without resorting to HDR trickery it turns out that the diffused lighting through the clouds made for the best photo after all. I took a picture of the road itself and a few of the tunnel that I didn’t bother taking on the way in and then moved on.

The Colorado crew from Coyote Gulch emailed over a few pictures that they took including one of “Easter Island” (which I neglected to take a picture of) and a few from the climb up out of the gulch (I’m in the bottom left corner of that one). One of the annoyances of solo travel is that you end up with pictures of everyone and everything but rarely any of yourself.

Further to yesterday’s thoughts about paved trails and wilderness toilets: I started reading Desert Solitaire in Arches because it seemed like a good book to read in the desert. I had no idea about Abbey’s notoriety and the whole Monkeywrench Gang thing (although everyone else in Moab seems to be aware). Although I haven’t finished the book yet I can say that the chapter on what Abbey (a former ranger at Arches when it was still just a National Monument rather than a park) dubs “Industrial Tourism” is one of the best put-together rants I have ever read. In short, the idea is that running paved roads right up to the main attractions in the national parks and allowing people to drive around snapping pictures from their car windows is detrimental to the parks that are being paved over and robs the visitors of the opportunity to actually experience the parks, for as Abbey writes in his introduction to Desert Solitaire “you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.”

I agree with Abbey in that you can’t see anything from a car, or even near a car. Going to a national park and viewing the scenery from the confines of the pavement is like going to Disney World, driving up to the Magic Kingdom, taking a picture from the parking lot, and then moving on to do the same at Epcot Center, Animal Kingdom, etc. After this exercise is complete one could technically say you had “seen all of Disney World” but your experience would not have much in common with anyone who actually went inside: you would have missed all of the magic that makes the place special. Unlike visits to Disney World the default behavior in the national parks seems to be to spend only a few hours driving around taking pictures and then move on. As an example of this: Yosemite National Park is roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island but most visitors only spend a few hours in the park and over 90% stay within the confines of Yosemite Valley, an area about the size of Manhattan. There is a sign outside the visitors center at Zion National Park (which encompasses 229 square miles) listing things to do in the park in less than 3 hours; in my opinion (and I’m sure Abbey would agree with me on this point) it should be replaced with a sign asking “Why did you bother driving all the way out here for only 3 hours?” This type of visitor will never know the view from the top of Half Dome, or Angels Landing, or walk through the slot canyons or between the hoodoos at Bryce, or stand under Delicate Arch at sunset, or look up at the walls of the Grand Canyon from the bottom just as the hypothetical drive-by Disney tourist would know nothing of the Pirates of the Caribbean. They will go home saying they have seen Yosemite, Zion, Bryce, Arches, or the Grand Canyon but will have missed nearly all of the magic that the parks have to offer.

Abbey (writing in the late 1960′s when I presume this was a far-fetched idea) proposed banning cars from the parks, instead offering an enormous parking lot at the entrance where visitors can take a shuttle into the park and to provide bicycles, horses, or mules (or wild pigs) for visitors to ride to allow them to experience the parks more intimately. He makes the point that a car takes up a disproportionately large amount of space for its size and that removing them from the park will in effect make the parks “bigger”, in the respect that they will be able to hold more people, and force visitors out of their cages to experience the parks first-hand. Today the sheer number of visitors trying to cram themselves and their cars into Zion during the summer has resulted in Abbey’s solution being implemented: cars are now banned from Zion Canyon during the busy season in favor of a shuttle. Yosemite and Bryce are also operating shuttles. Even the bicycles, horses, and mules (although no wild pigs as of yet) have been implemented: The Shark Valley section of Everglades National Park has a single road that is open only to shuttles and bicycles that can be picked up at the parking lot. Yosemite, Zion, Bryce, and Great Smoky Mountains are all known for horseback riding, and one of the 2 ways to get from the rim to the bottom of the Grand Canyon is by mule (the other being on foot).

A point that Abbey’s rant against industrial tourism fails to recognize however is that many of the parks owe their existence and popularity to an earlier form of industrial tourism. Setting aside huge tracts of valuable land (which in some cases had already been claimed or settled by people who had to be kicked out) and restricting private development requires political willpower. In the early 1900′s much of the willpower came from the railroads that were involved in establishing, improving, and promoting many of the parks including Yellowstone, Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon in order to stimulate recreational passenger traffic thereby increase their revenues. These places were never meant to be pristine wilderness, they were meant to be showcases affording easy access to natural wonders for the common man, heralding the end of an era when only the rich could afford to travel for pleasure. The rise of conservation its own sake was still in its infancy and wouldn’t hit its stride until later.

The passenger railroads and their financial interest in setting aside natural wonders as travel destinations are now gone and we must rely on the population at large and their support of conservation to apply the political pressure to continue protecting the places we have set aside. Unfortunately today there is a large segment of the population who would think nothing of walking a half-mile across the blistering wasteland of a Wal-Mart parking lot and through the chaotic maze of aisles to retrieve a microwavable pizza from the far end of the store but would never dream of walking the same distance to experience the view from a headwall above Zion Canyon. If you tried to force these people to get out of their cars to see the parks they will simply go somewhere else (probably Disney World, where they are already required to park their cars at the entrance and will end up doing just as much walking as they would in a car-free national park) and I worry that if this large segment of the population doesn’t at least catch a glimpse of these places, even from the confines of their cars, they won’t care about them any more; the political willpower will be lost and the protections these places have been granted won’t be far behind. If we have to sacrifice a few of these places to paved roads carrying minivans full of screaming kids and frozen pizzas to keep people thinking about how special the parks are, even if they never get the full experience, and it keeps the will to protect both the tourist-friendly frontcountry and the vast remote backcountry alive then I am begrudgingly for it.

The concept of a national park losing its protected status may seem far-fetched today but I really do worry about these places. There is already a dam inside Yosemite National Park, flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley which, if anyone who was alive before 1923 is to be believed, was just as spectacular as Yosemite Valley itself. Our concept of what it means to be a national park has changed since those days but these parks and their protections were created by legislative actions and they can just as easily be undone if enough political pressure is applied. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the desert southwest.

It is very easy to use the desert against itself. The soft sandstone erodes into deep canyons where rivers can be dammed in to form deep reservoirs and the arid conditions make for sparse populations (less people to complain about losing their land to a reservoir). The reservoirs created by the dams allow for irrigation where it was never possible before, which leads to agriculture, which is followed by towns, and then cites, all of which consume the ample water stored in the reservoirs. The first problem is that this region has far exceeded the population at which the water supply was ample. For decades more water has been drawn out of these reservoirs for crops, cattle, towns, cities, golf courses, manicured lawns, and the water fountains at the casinos in Las Vegas than the Colorado River has been putting into them. In the summer of 2010, before that winter’s record snowfalls, Lake Mead, behind the Hoover Dam, was down to a mere 39% of its capacity and Las Vegas (whose water supply comes almost entirely from the lake) was installing a deeper intake pipe as the old one was soon to be high and dry. A bleached bathtub ring around the lake indicates the former high-water mark, showing exactly how far the level has fallen. While the past winter’s snows have provided some relief this is only delaying the inevitable: unless things stay consistently wetter upriver or people stop using so much water downriver it will eventually run out.

Water use isn’t the only problem however, the same soft sandstone that allows the rivers to carve deep canyons also results in enormous quantities of silt in the rivers. When the quick-flowing river waters slow for the first time the silt precipitates to the bottom forming an alluvial fan. On the Colorado this used to take place where the river dumped into the ocean but now it occurs in the first major reservoir: Lake Powell behind the Glen Canyon Dam, just upriver from the Grand Canyon. Silt is filling the upper end of the reservoir and displacing water storage capacity in a slowly advancing pile moving down towards the dam itself. As the reserve capacity of the reservoir decreases the chance of a large spring flood over-topping the dam and catastrophically destroying it, sending a wall of water crashing through the Grand Canyon and into Lake Mead, presumably over the Hoover Dam in a domino effect increases (this nearly happened twice already, only 3 years after Lake Powell was initially filled). If the dam is not destroyed by floods the silt will eventually cover the dam’s lower intakes preventing water release during the dry months and leaving the Grand Canyon dry.

As the Colorado continues to dump its 44 million tons of sediment into the reservoir, decreasing water storage capacity and increasing the risk of catastrophic flood damage to the dam, the region will cry out for a solution (abandoning the unsustainable settlements out here would be simply unfathomable). The most obvious solution is the construction of a dam somewhere upriver to create a new reservoir and move the silt problem further upstream (in fact one of the justifications for the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam was the loss of 10% of Lake Mead’s capacity to silt in the 30 years when it was the first major reservoir on the river). This brings me back to the original point: many of the canyons on the Colorado and its main tributary the Green River that would seem suitable for dam construction upstream from Lake Powell are already in or bordering protected lands including Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, and Dinosaur National Monument (which itself has already been the subject of a fierce battle with the Sierra Club over dam construction when the Glen Canyon Dam was still on the drawing board). Whether or not this region’s addiction to water might some day result in overwhelming political pressure to dam rivers through the national parks and monuments (that don’t have any human residents of their own to protest) is certainly a valid question. I am beginning to wonder if we need to elevate the parks from their status as legislative creations and afford them constitutional protections, similar to the State of New York’s “forever wild” constitutional protections for Adirondack State Park, before it becomes too late.
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