A Conversation with Bates Wilson
Bates Wilson served as superintendent of Arches National Monument from 1949 to 1964. During that time, he advocated the creation of a National Park in the area that is now Canyonlands. Wilson led government officials on jeep tours featuring lengthy talks over campfires and hearty dutch oven dinners. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall joined one of these tours in 1961, and began lobbying for the proposed park.
These efforts came to fruition on September 12, 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Public Law 88-590 establishing Canyonlands National Park. Bates became the first superintendent which, along with his role as chief advocate for the park's creation, earned him the title of "Father of Canyonlands."
This interview first appeared in Western Gateways Magazine - Canyonlands in the fall of 1967 and is reprinted with permission from K.C. DenDooven.
Western Gateways (WG): Bates, how long after reaching Arches National Monument in April of 1949 did it take you to start getting involved in the Canyonlands area?
Bates Wilson (BW): My first view of it was that same spring, from an airplane. It really impressed me. Of course as new Superintendent, my first concern was with Arches. But in 1951 - - again in the spring - - I went in on a pack trip with Ross Musselman. We made a base camp at Squaw Springs and then rode over to the confluence of the rivers, the Green River and Colorado River back by way of Cyclone Canyon and Devil's Pocket. Then again from our base camp we rode up Salt Creek to The Meadows, and out the east fork to Salt Creek. My son was along, and a cousin from Pennsylvania, who incidentally is a Philadelphia lawyer named [Robert] Deckert. [Robert] was completely nuts about the country, and was the one who named Druid Arch.
WG: Sounds like a small beginning. How did that germinate any interest?
BW: It didn't, much, except with us. We were awed by the scenery we saw. There were quite a few archeological sites, too, so I started trying to get the University of Utah to come down and do a reconnaissance, particularly on some sites in Salt Creek and Horse Canyon. Well, they said they didn't have either the time or the money, so then I thought it might be a good project for the kids to go in and at least map the ruins. We started with Horse Canyon and they did it sort of scientifically. We sent our reports to an archeologist's wife at the University to be written up, and that did it. Within a couple of weeks we had two archeologists down from the University.
They made a reconnaissance, and decided to make a dig in Beef Basin, so next year they hired all the kids who had been on the first mapping - - all except my son, who by then was all wrapped up in short circuits (electrical engineering). From that time on, we made repeated trips to the Needles, which was the first area I thought was national park caliber.
WG: You could envision all of this as national park even back in those days - - as soon as you saw it?
BW: Oh, yes! And I had been trying to get an official investigation from the Park Service, without much success. Well, it took from 1951 to 1955 to get the investigation. In the meantime the uranium boom had come along and of course some of the greatest activity was in this area, so that sort of put the squash on the idea of a park as far as I could see. My thought then was that it might be declared a national recreation area, so that it would at least be in the national park system.
While this was going on, two Park Service planners came in, Leo Diederich from Washington and Les Arnberger from our regional office in Santa Fe. We were standing on Grand View Point and I asked Leo his opinion on the landscape, and on getting an investigation of the Needles for inclusion in the national park system. "Why stop with Needles?" was his reaction.
"There's the park - - the entire erosion basin, from the top of the Wingate cliffs to the level of the rivers." That was when the picture started to clear, and the concept changed from 32,000 acres to a one million acre proposal.
WG: And you got your investigation?
BW: Well, there had been some limited ones. The Park Service had made a recreation planning study of Dead Horse Point and what is now The Island in the Sky. At that time we were urging state agencies to establish state parks and had made investigations of limited areas on the rims. But nothing down below. So where it came, the full survey took in everything, much more than the little Needles area that had caught my interest.
WG: Secretary of The Interior Udall made a trip into the Canyonlands in the early 1960's. Was this an outgrowth of some of this new focus on the area?
BW: Yes, but something else happened in between. Shortly after he took office, The Secretary flew in to address a superintendents' conference being held at Grand Canyon. En route, he passed over the Canyonlands area, and apparently circled several times above the confluence of the rivers. Before delivering his address he sent for me and said, "I understand that you are familiar with the area adjacent to the junction of the Green River and Colorado River?" I replied that I was very interested in it. "What can you tell me about it?", he asked. I said that I'd explored the Needles area on the east side quite thoroughly, and had been trying to recommend it, and that I'd been on the north end between the rivers, but not on the west side. "Well," he said, "this looks to me like a terrific area for a national park."
I hadn't met him until then, but apparently he knew more about me than I though he did. During his speech he said that he "had just been talking to the 'Old Homesteader' from Arches concerning the land adjacent to the confluence of the Green and Colorado." he said, "I've also just completed a flight over the area and I can see two or three national parks right there." At the time the Park Service was starting to encourage its superintendents to recommend new areas because many of our other areas were just getting jammed with people. So he was bringing this out in his talk to the superintendents as a way of recommending the area. From then on, there was real interest.
WG: And then came the much-publicized trip by the Secretary all through the area.
BW: That's right. It was in July of 1961. The one million acre park proposal came shortly afterward, and as you know it was rather warmly debated for a couple of years. The Canyonlands National Park was established on September 12, 1964, but the size was cut back to a little over a quarter the original size.
WG: Are the multiple-use people who opposed the creation of the park pretty well reconciled now to its existence?
BW: Oh, I think so. Of course the size was cut back a lot, and there actually are still some multiple uses on it. One is an oil well on the Island In The Sky.
WG: Wasn't that particular oil well drilled after Canyonlands became a national park?
BW: Yes, but they held a lease at the time the park was set aside.
WG: If a major oil discovery should be made there, is there any limit on recovery?
BW: Apparently no.
WG: Wouldn't a large field create problems?
BW: It could. Tanks usually go in a convenient spot, and the company is usually against moving them. Sometimes they can camouflage them. Then road networks and other things start to enter the picture. Any man-made thing is an encroachment on the natural scene that we are preserving. But suppose a big field did develop. It would be pumped out in, say, 30 years, after which we would require it to be cleaned up and re-landscaped before being abandoned. The thing is, we are not looking at this as a park for just the next fifty years, but forever.
I know of wells in Salt Valley that were put down in 1926 and if you don't happen to know exactly where they were, all that's left is a standpipe sticking up about four feet. But we have to be careful because scars in this kind of country take a long time to heal. We're getting terrific cooperation from the group that has this well. They put their access road right on an old road and all they did was level off the high centers so they could get their trucks in and out.
WG: What about uranium mining?
BW: There are some claims still inside the park, and these people are entitled to access to them, but generally the interest has faded out. The revived market for uranium may cause some development of good existing claims, but you realize no new prospecting or staking of claims is allowed. Just claims that were valid before creation of the park can be mined.
WG: As long as the assessment work has been done.
BW: No, it isn't even necessary for them to do that. We recognize the claims even though it hasn't been done. The government does. If these claims were outside the park they would be jumpable, because a lot of them haven't kept up the yearly assessment work. But they aren't jump able within the park because no more prospecting or staking can be done.
WG: The intent of this isn't to relieve the holder of his assessment work requirement is it?
BW: No, not at all! But the reason for the assessment work requirement is to keep the claim valid so that someone else isn't entitled to jump it. Since we protect claims inside the park against new filings, the guy with a valid claim is sitting pretty. He is protected by the park status, and doesn't have to spend his assessment money for annual improvements.
WG: It's been proposed that the boundaries of Canyonlands National Park be enlarged by the addition of certain lands, including Dead Horse Point. Will you outline this for us?
BW: Of course. Dead Horse Point is a Utah State Park. But the state asked Senator Moss to include it in the proposal he made, which was to extend the west side by adding The Maze and The Land of Standing Rocks. The different agencies within the state haven't yet decided whether they want to turn it over to the Federal Government or not. We're sort of sitting in the middle and would probably be glad to have it if they decide to let us. There are improvements on it and we'd probably have to pay for them.
WG: If the Federal Government did acquire that particular land, would the use rules apply to it that govern the rest of the national park?
BW: I don't know. Dead Horse Point gives a very spectacular view but the land has a little bit of everything in the way of multiple use: uranium claims, potash leases, oil leases, grazing - - which presents problems for us. We can't spend a nickel on land that is under any of these things, so there would have to be some sort of clearing of the multiple use of Dead Horse Point before we could do much for it.
We have to get a Right Of Way from the owner of any uranium claim staked before 1955. Prior to that time the owner had surface rights and could keep even the Federal Government from crossing the surface of his claim. Now the law reserves surface rights to the government. But even on the valid older claims it doesn't present too much problem because a road across a claim enhances its value. We do have some characters who get advance dope on our road plans and run out and put claims in there. But since the claims are not pre-1955, it doesn't do them any good.
WG: Suppose the Maze area west of the rivers were added to Canyonlands National Park. What can a person do there?
BW: Well, as the name implies it's a complex network of canyons, and it does require a great deal of walking or riding horseback to cover it. The canyons are big, long, and twisting. A man could spend two weeks in there on foot and never cover the whole thing.
WG: How much area is involved?
BW: The whole enlargement proposal is around 121,000 acres, of which Dead Horse Point is about 21,000. The rest of it would be made up mostly of The Maze country.
WG: Must the Maze area be seen from down inside, or are there overlook points?
BW: You can get by jeep to some overlook points that are terrific. One from near Elaterite Butte, on the north side, is especially wonderful in the morning and evening sun.
WG: It would be hard to administer an area cut off from the rest of the park by the rivers, wouldn't it?
BW: We'd have to establish a district ranger station in the vicinity of course. Maybe at French Springs on top, with a sub-district somewhere near Waterhole Flat. Those are two control points. Water is the big problem.
WG: What is your appraisal of the proposal to construct a scenic parkway along the west side of Lake Powell and through Canyonlands to connect the Page, Arizona area with the Grand Junction, Colorado area?
BW: I think it's good, and one way of letting the visitor get off transcontinental highway to see some spectacular country. Once they get down this way twenty miles they start getting into the red rocks and get interested. Most of what has been done so far is just reconnaissance, trying to figure out what points should be connected, and how to cross the river - - if it's feasible to cross it.
WG: If we remember correctly, you don't favor crossing the river inside the park?
BW: No! The first reason is that we haven't found a practical route yet. It would be feasible to go down to Anderson Bottom and cross there with a low level bridge. But from the Orange Cliffs - - North Point - - a black strip of highway down there on those benches would just wreck the whole setting and the whole view. I think we have convinced the highway department that this is true. And there isn't any way to cross the Colorado River below the confluence without a high bridge of a half or three quarter mile span, with approaches through land we want to leave as wilderness. You just mustn't overdevelop an area. It's pretty easy to take a map and say this is where a road ought to go, but you have to consider whether such developments are going to enhance or encroach on an area.
WG: What has been decided about where this parkway might be routed?
BW: Taking it from the north, it would start at Colorado National Monument, go south through Glade Park and down to the triangle between the Dolores and Colorado Rivers. Then across the Dolores River and down along the Colorado River to the Moab bridge, along the north bank almost to Potash, then out Long Canyon. From there it would swing south on top to within a half mile or so of Dead Horse Point, cross the big flat and tie in to our existing route at The Neck.
Getting across the Green River is the big problem, as I said. Some of the routes would lead so far back north that we would be defeating our whole purpose. There's nothing definite yet, but a chance of crossing at the Bow Knot. This would take out on The Spur and from there we could go south to the west of French Springs, over Orange Cliffs Pass, then either through Sunset Pass or down Apache Canyon back to highway 95 and south over the Henry Mountains on the Bullfrog road.
WG: It seems like such a proposal would get into almost everyone's bailiwick.
BW: There are a number of federal and state agencies involved, as well as private interest groups. We recently completed a trip in the Waterpocket Fold area with a group of conservationist people, the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, Wasatch Mountain Club, and Western River Guides Association to show them on the ground a proposed line for a road across Waterpocket Fold. We had a great number of letters about a plan which was published using a pretty nebulous map, and not one of them had been on the ground, so we made this trip with them to look at the actual terrain.
WG: Is this part of your job as National Park Service Coordinator for the state of Utah?
BW: That's right.
WG: Sounds like what you call a "horseback" job.
BW: Yes, I have an office in Salt Lake, manned five days a week by an Information Specialist, and I try to get up there about once a week. All of the state offices and many federal offices are there, and it works out very well as a way of getting things done personally - - much more effective than by letter. It's a job with no set schedule, and that often has to be played by ear. A lot of the work is in the field, too - - such as the trip I just mentioned.
WG: What's your favorite part of Canyonlands park?
BW: I can't really say I have a favorite. I think that you can get more intimate with The Needles - - closer to it. On the Island in the Sky you're still surrounded by the country but have more of the overview. The White Rim Trail drive is something of each. I think it's all terrific and I can't say I have any preference. The river canyon is also exciting.
WG: The boating aspect of park administration probably poses some unusual problems, doesn't it - - being somewhat different than boating on a city reservoir, for instance?
BW: Yes, that's very true, even though great numbers don't run the rapids below the confluence. And we don't have to worry too much about them; they're usually in pretty good hands. We require guides to get permits to run through Cataract Canyon. But on the quiet water above, anyone can put a boat in. It isn't particularly dangerous except for a breakdown or running out of gas. Then they're in bad shape if they're farther down than Anderson Bottom. The reason we have a patrol boat on the river is to take care of such cases. We do want to encourage private boating on the Colorado River side and have put a little road and ramp in to Lathrop Canyon, down off the White Rim. People can start at Moab or MGM Bottom and float down that far and be met. Beyond that point, though, other than Lockhart Canyon, there isn't any way out.
WG: Do you have any registration system for boater protection in case they have trouble downstream?
BW: We're setting one up, and hope we can make it stick. There are so many places for boaters to put in, it's a little difficult to contact them all. I don' think they want to sneak in, they're just not taking advantage of out being there.
WG: Bates, what do you think are the greatest needs of Canyonlands National Park right now?
BW: Circulatory roads, then sanitary facilities. We're getting pressure - - great pressure - - now to pave the entrance road from Highway 160 into The Needles. We don't want to do this, and it's hard to make people understand why. We don't want to pull throngs of people in, then have to dead-end them. But if we pave it, we'll get an influx that we aren't ready for. We'd rather be prepared to take care of them when they get there.
WG: What about roads to areas like Chesler Park - - internal roads?
BW: Chesler Park is the Shangri-La of Needles area. It's the destination. We think the average visitor should see Chesler because of what it is. But how to get him in and out of there and still reserve it in its natural state is a hard problem.
There have been a number of proposals, starting with a two wheel drive road around the inside perimeter of Chesler. This was opposed strongly by wilderness groups, the Sierra Club, etc. Then the idea of stopping traffic at the edge and having people walk from there came up. I think this would cause more scarring than a paved road because the "brown sugar" soil is crusty and fragile, and so is the vegetation. If a guy has a map showing a trail head straight across, he certainly isn't going to walk around the perimeter to get there, and we'll end up with a bunch of sheep trails and a complete clobbering of the vegetation.
WG: What's your solution?
BW: If you're aware of it, here's a fringe of trees around the perimeter of Chesler Park, due to the extra moisture that runs down off the rocks. This has also created a perimeter depression - - a trough around the outside of the big center meadow. We walked that, placing a jeep, for instance, on the southern viewpoint and one on the northern viewpoint, and any place we came out there was always a natural landscape barrier so you couldn't see the vehicle. And we came out with nice low natural grades, nothing over ten percent.
WG: How about tracing back over your Park Service career briefly?
BW: I grew up in New Mexico - - born at Silver City in the southwestern part. My father had gone to Princeton, and since a few uncles and I were the end of the Wilson line, I was supposed to go there, too. They sent me to an excellent prep school in New Jersey, but I found myself scholastically embarrassed, so I came back to New Mexico - - Santa Fe area and went into dude ranch work. I'd done some of it before going East. I can remember my paycheck being $25 a month, and out of this I had to pay $5 to board my horse. Well, I finally got a job with the National Park Service as a foreman under the CCC program. We did construction work for eight years.
A lot of our work around Santa Fe was building Hyde Park, a state park north of there. Developing it in the way of roads, campgrounds, water system, sanitary facilities, and a ski lodge. This got me terribly interested in skiing, and when the CCC program ended I went into the ski business with a partner, Ray McAllen, who was an instructor and ski area expert. The only trouble was we were about twenty years too early. About the time things got off the ground, Pearl Harbor was hit and everything turned off.
I had taken the Park Service ranger exam in 1937, so I applied for a job as ranger. About two days before I was to go to Saguaro National Monument the superintendent at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was pulled into the army. So they put me in there as Acting Custodian - - what would now be Acting Superintendent.
WG: So you started out your Park Service career as an Acting Superintendent?
BW: Yes, and do you know, I never did get to work as a ranger!
Last updated: April 26, 2018