Stewart Udall and the Creation of Canyonlands

three men stand at the rim of a canyon
Former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall (center) shares a moment with two other Canyonlands pioneers: Kent Frost (left) and Ken Sleight.

NPS/Neal Herbert

Stewart Udall served as secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969. He was responsible for much legislation to conserve and protect public lands, including the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Preservation Act and the Land and Water Conservation Act. During his tenure, the National Park Service added four national parks, six national monuments, nine recreation areas, 20 historic sites and 56 wildlife refuges.

Canyonlands was one of the national parks created during this time. On a flight over this area in the early 1960s, then Bureau of Reclamation Chief Floyd Dominy showed Udall where he wanted to build the "next" big dam: just below the Confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers. But where Dominy saw a reservior, Stewart Udall saw a national park.

Speaking at Grand View Point on July 26, 2006, Udall revealed this and other moments as he retold the story of how Canyonlands came to be. Udall died on March 20, 2010.

Canyonlands Superintendent Kate Cannon provided a short introduction to this 30-minute presentation.


Open Transcript 


KATE CANNON: Good morning and welcome. It's wonderful to see everyone here to meet and re-meet and honor and listen to Stewart Udall. My name's Kate Cannon, and I'm the current superintendent of the park, and it's my distinct pleasure to welcome Stewart Udall back to Canyonlands National Park, one of the many parks that he was so instrumental in establishing.

Grand though that accomplishment is, it's just one of the many huge accomplishments of Stewart Udall's wonderful career in which he marked America. He formed the America we know and love, and that will serve generations in the years to come with magnificent national parks that define us and inspire us and refresh us. In addition to that, he was instrumental in many of the other legislations and actions that set aside land for the people of the country as wild and scenic rivers, as wilderness areas, and set aside funding to make cities and towns more livable environments through the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Personally I'm very grateful to Mr. Udall for what he has left for me and for my children, and it's wonderful to have him back here, and I hope you'll all join me in welcoming him to Canyonlands. [applause]

STEWART UDALL: Good morning. One of the names I remember from the old days - I'm going to talk about the old days - is Kent Frost, and I'm glad he's here. Kent, I salute you for your support and all the work you did. [applause]

There may be others here. I have lost a substantial part of my sight, so I can see the view, I can see distances, but I can't see faces unless I'm up close. I have come back to Canyonlands with my family. My wife left us a while back. I have eight grandchildren, six children. All of my children are here except my oldest child who is a congressman, and he has to be in that place where they're doing all the damage to us. [laughter] I decided, because I have a very close family, my children, grandchildren are here, and I said, "I'm going to take you back to the Canyonlands where my career as secretary of the Interior started."

And I'm going to ramble. I can't read from notes. I can't read; I'm just going to talk. That's a privilege of old men, to be able to just ramble. I'm going to take you back to the beginning of Canyonlands National Park. And I'm going to dig in my memory - I'll probably make some mistakes, and I'll mispronounce names or fail to remember names of people that were important, so forgive me please. Forgive the old man.

I grew up down in northern Arizona on the Colorado Plateau the part of the Little Colorado. This is my home country. I'm a Mormon, of sorts. [laughter] My father was a church official, and we used to drive through this country when I was a boy, so I go back almost 80 years. That's pretty good.

And so, the story about the beginning of the drive from the outside - there were a lot of people here, including a man who became a kind of grand uncle of my family, Bates Wilson, was the park superintendent of Arches. And he had been pushing, and a lot of local people had been pushing. I don't think Grand County was aboard at that point, and I'm sure San Juan County was not with the idea of a national park.

Where I first got a glimpse of the national park, I was secretary of the Interior. The Sierra Club, for one of the few dumb things they proposed, wanted to build a dam to protect water from running under Rainbow Bridge. And I brought some congressmen and press people out to study that problem. We were moving around in helicopters. We spent a day and a half studying that problem, and when we finished, we went back to Page, Arizona, and the dam was starting to fill, and the great figure that you're all familiar with - Floyd Dominy - he was there. He worked for me. I traveled commercial, and he had an airplane and a pilot, and he said - he knew how busy I was - he said, "I'm going back to Denver. Would you like a ride?"

And I said, "Yes, I'd like a ride." And so we got in the plane, and he said "I'm going to show you the next big dam on the river at the Confluence." - below the Confluence. I said, "Well, that's fine," and we got in the plane, and we were flying along about 10,000 feet, and I looked off and saw this country and saw The Needles, The Doll House, all of this. And I didn't say anything to him because he was showing me where he wanted to put - he was a powerful figure - the next dam. And I said, "Goodness sake, that's a national park." That's a national park. I got back to Washington. I didn't say anything to Dominy. I got back to Washington, I called the park director in and I said, "Has there ever been a study of the area above the Confluence on the Colorado and Green rivers?" And he said, "Well, I'll check this." And it turned out Harold Ickes, the grand old secretary, he had had a little study done. It went nowhere. This actually, I think, just before World War II in the 1930s.

So I said, "I'm going to go out and take a look at it on the ground." And I put out a press release, and we had then Senator Frank Moss was the senator from Utah. This is July 1961, that's when we came. This trip drew "Life" Magazine, "Look," "National Geographic," you name the magazine or the newspaper. I must have had in the group, oh, 30 or 40 photographers and writers who came to see this area, which I had touted as a potential national park. This is one of the places, Katie, that we brought them to, and their mouths were agape and the beauty and the scenery here. Because I've always felt, in part, because I have a little fatherly claim to Canyonlands, that in many ways this is more diverse and grand than the Grand Canyon, in my own state. If you want diversity, The Maze, The Doll House, The Needles, all the other things - this has more variety than the Grand Canyon, and I'm from the Grand Canyon State in saying that.

This had an extraordinary impact on these writers and photographers that came. With them, it was almost as though: "well of course it's a national park. Get busy. Get it done." We had a little local opposition though. [laughter] This was not a popular idea in the region here, because along the river at that time, this was at the end of the uranium boom, and the uranium tailings that are now being moved because they're a threat to the health of everybody drinking water down below. The uranium boom was ending at that point, and the hero - there was a man - Charlie Steen, or something, who had made a million dollars - that was a lot of money then - and he had a big house up on the hill over at Moab. So everybody said, "why do you want to create a national park?"

The big argument made against national parks and wilderness at that point in time is that if you designate it by law - that was the idea of the Wilderness Act - or created a national park, you had locked out economic activity. The lockout argument was very powerful, and it was used by congressmen and senators who were opposed to the wilderness bill. The wilderness bill, by the way, was pending and the first vote that was taken on the wilderness bill happened the same month, July 1961, that's the period I'm talking about. They had a vote in the senate, and it was astounding. It was like a thunderclap. Seventy-eight voted for the wilderness bill. Twelve voted against it. Overwhelming support, because the wilderness bill had been sponsored five years before the original bill. So this happened, as I remember, right during the middle of our tour. We must have taken four, five days and Bates Wilson and the park service people from Arches, they were in charge of moving us around.

This attracted truly national publicity because of the photography. This is just about the time that you got color photography, and that's what this red-rock country needs to show its magnificence.

We came first up to the Island in the Sky. Bates Wilson - this was before you had these wonderful roads. They were dirt roads and we were making dust, and were getting all these photographers and writers dusty although they were very enthusiastic. We spent, I think, a day up here, or a day and a half, on the Island in the Sky, and then we - I rented some helicopters, military, we moved across the area that you're looking across and got a close-up view of The Doll House and The Maze, and we landed over at Chesler Park where the Needles are and so on.

We allowed time for people to wander around and we had this big press corps. One of the things that I will always remember because it showed what the differences were in the point of view - there were the pro-park people and the anti-park people, and the governor of Utah finally joined us. His name was George Dewey Clyde. He was an engineer by profession. A good man, I'm sure. And, Kate, we had the final day after they saw Chesler Park and The Needles and so on, we had a press conference with the Needles in back of us and by that time the press corps had made up their minds that this was an incredible opportunity and the park potential was great.

And the governor went with me at the press conference. We were standing there and the press - I had made my little speech - and the press - the governor hadn't spoken and didn't want to speak, and the press said, "Governor, we're all overwhelmingly impressed at this fantastic area. Why are you opposed to it being a national park?" And he looked, and he waved at the Needles, at these wonderful stone, and he said, "You don't realize this is a mining state. We might need this a building stone." That's what he said. [laughter] And that represented the attitude of the opponents of the park. In fact, the governor and the old Senator Bennett, Wallace Bennett, had proposed Dead Horse Point State Park, they were willing that that be made into a national park and taken off their hands. They said they can stand on the point and look off and - in effect- see the national park in the distance. Of course, that's by the way, what too many people do down at the Grand Canyon now. They come from Las Vegas in planes, they get off and they go and look and take a picture, they're gone. You don't take a picture of the Canyonlands and see the Canyonlands. That isn't possible.

That's where we were. But we were fortunate, we had the young senator Frank Moss, who played a tremendous role in what happened. We had two congressmen David King was the son of the former senator, and I think the other one was named Peterson. So we had the congressional delegation, or most of it, except Senator Bennett, and we thought we were off to the races. But it took us three years to get the legislation through Congress. I had the National Park Service put a study team - send a study team in here - to develop boundaries for the proposed national park. And I told them to be generous - don't exclude the best parts of the country. They came back with a plan for a million-acre park. Senator Moss, who had - as all member of Congress do - political problems, he slowly shrank it to the present size. It still could be enlarged, if I were young enough, I would invite the present Senator Bennett to come right here and sit on the edge and have a talk with me about possible enlargements of the park.

Now a lot of this is rugged country. Rugged country protects itself - that was one of the arguments the anti-wilderness people made. "Well, why do we need a wilderness bill? The rugged land - the high country - protects itself," and so on. This is where we started and it slowly shrank. The main opponents of the - of a legislation at that time - well the Grand County board of supervisors - cattlemen had legitimate interest as I'll tell you in a minute.

So the first big hearing they had in Moab, Senator Moss and the two congressmen had a hearing there to hear pros and cons of people. And Bates Wilson, this superintendent, who was one of the sweetest men ever met, my children all remember him and love him. Bates made the presentation for the park service. He had maps and so on, and the first opponent who got up and took the floor said, - because Bates was very popular - the people who disagreed with him loved him. And he said, "Oh," he said, "Bates has had his say, and he's presented his case," he said, "we all know Bates Wilson. If he had his way, he'd put most of southern Utah in a national park." Bates is sitting in the crowd, and he said, "That's about right." [laughter] So that's where the park idea began. We had to make economic arguments, and the Grand County people, they got on us later. We had the University of Utah do an economic study of what the economic benefits would be if you establish a national park - visitation, of course, is what we're talking about. And the other side saying, "Well, there are mines there. There's uranium. Blah, blah. There's other values, not just tourism."

And so the argument - we had the University of Utah do an economic study, and they predicted huge benefits, actually they seeded themselves, and later we were accused for about 20 years by Grand County people, "You promised all this. Where is it?" Well, it took time, as you can see, for that to happen. We also had a film made. The park service authorized a film. And we had American premiere in Salt Lake City. I developed the argument, and thought it was logical, because I believe then, and I believe now, that the most scenic land area in the world is the Colorado Plateau. Most scenic in the world. That's a big statement. I was dumb enough to stay - or smart enough to stay - for eight years as secretary of the Interior, and I went to most of the continents of the world. I didn't get to India or the Himalayas or Australia and other places, but I have said in many - to many audiences around the world that this is the most scenic, for scenic beauty and splendor - I'm including the Grand Canyon, the whole thing - the Colorado Plateau. And I used to say - one of my arguments to Utah people is, "California is four or five times as big, and they have four national parks. Why shouldn't Utah have five? Because you have the most scenic land." Well that worked with some people.

And ultimately, in 1964, the same summer the wilderness bill passed, the Canyonlands park bill passed. And I don't think there were many no votes at that point, because we had made a few compromises. We shrank the boundaries. There was a cattle company that had the right to graze cattle down in the low country. Of course, we know there's a lot of heat and not much terrain down there, and that meant there wasn't much grass. We made an exception, Katie, in the bill, to get it passed, and the cattle company agreed because it wasn't a prime grazing land area. We gave them 10 years. The national park and the grazing allowed for 10 years, and Congress went along with that, and that became part of the bill. And, of course, you don't get the full development of national parks until you have - not a lot of roads - but roads into the key places like the road you - up to the Island in the Sky that you're on today - and that's the reason Grand County said, "You said there'll be all these tourists. Where are they?" Well, it'll take a little time.

There were people who spoke up - Kent Frost is one of them. He's here today. There were others led by Bates Wilson beating the drums all along, and that's the story of the beginning. That's what I came here to say, to present to you today, my memories of how the project got started, and I still think, as I have said earlier, I think this is one of the most magnificent places in the United States. You can talk about the Grand Canyon, you can talk about Yellowstone, you can talk about Yosemite, and so on. I'm biased - I'm not sure they compare with the canyon. How about that? Thank you. [applause]

CANNON: Thank you, could you stay up here for a minute? I think that there may be some questions that people in the audience would like to ask Secretary Udall, and we also have a poster that we framed to remind you of this place when you go home, in case you need any reminding, so let me give that to you now. Do you want to unwrap it, or do you want me to?

UDALL: No you unwrap it.

CANNON: I suppose you have a lot of these. I'll set it aside for you

UDALL: Thank you

CANNON: Would you like to take some questions?

UDALL: Yeah, I guess we'll have some questions. I assume most of you are converts and a friendly audience, but I'll even take a harsh question if there are any.


TUG WILSON: My father Bates would have enjoyed meeting you again.

UDALL: A little louder.

WILSON: My father Bates cherished you very much.

UDALL: You're Bates' son? Oh my goodness.

WILSON: He spoke of you many, many times, and if I could tell the audience a story.

UDALL: Come on up here. This is Bates Wilson's son.

WILSON: I'm Tug Wilson, Bates' son. My father told us a little slightly different story of the first trip. And you have to understand my father always made new stories from old ones. When Stewart had been in Washington for about a year, he needed a vacation, I don't know why anyone in Washington would need a vacation, but he called up someone in the park service office and says, "I need a vacation," and they said, "Well, there's a ranger," - loose term - "out in Utah, who wants to make the whole state - the southern part - a national park." And Stew said, "That'll be great." So he comes out, you send an advance team. And the advance team was two helicopters, and this is the interesting part of the story. The Army sent two helicopters. The old airport was in Spanish Valley in Moab, so the helicopters leave and dad takes them on a survey trip, which was in The Maze, to the river bottom, to The Needles, Island in the Sky, and back. As they're flying back to Moab, in the Army helicopters that he told us he rented - my family could have sued you - dad is sitting in the back of one of the helicopters, the second helicopter, and they put earphones on and everything, and he hears on the earphones one pilot say to the other pilot, "Sir, the gas tank shows low." The pilot says, "What about the reserve tank?" He says, "It's empty." [laughter] So he says, "Ask Ranger Wilson where we are." And they're Behind the Rocks, so they ask my father, "Can we make it to the airport?" which means you've got to go up over the rim and down. Dad says, "no." So they set it down, the empty one. The full one loaded all the crew, the went to the Spanish airport and got fuel and came back. So someone in the Army - sounds a little bit like maybe something over in the Middle East - didn't service the helicopter.

So now back to Stew. So he comes out here for his vacation, and he never goes back. [laughter] Thank you for coming.

UDALL: Thanks for that.

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31 minutes, 12 seconds

Stewart Udall served as secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969. He was responsible for much legislation to conserve and protect public lands, including Canyonlands National Park. Speaking at Grand View Point on July 26, 2006, he told the story of how Canyonlands came to be.

Last updated: January 30, 2019

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