Foundation Document



Every unit of the national park system is required to have a formal statement of its core mission that will provide basic guidance for all planning and management decisions—a foundation for planning and management. Increasing emphasis on government accountability and restrained federal spending demand that all stakeholders are aware of the purpose, significance, interpretive themes, fundamental resources and values, and special mandates and administrative commitments of a park unit as well as the legal and policy requirements for administration and resource protection that factor into management decisions.

The process of developing a foundation document provides the opportunity to gather together and integrate all varieties and hierarchies of information about a park unit. Next, this information is refined and focused to determine what are the most important attributes of the park. The process of preparing a foundation document aids park managers, staff, and stakeholders in identifying information that is necessary for future planning efforts. This foundation document was developed as a collaborative effort. A workshop to facilitate this process was held June 19–21, 2012, in Moab, Utah. A complete list of attendees and preparers is included in part 3 of this document.

A foundation document serves as the underlying guidance for planning decisions for a national park unit. It describes the core mission of the park unit by identifying the purpose, significance, fundamental and important resources and values, interpretive themes, assessment of planning and data needs, special mandates and administrative commitments, and the park unit’s setting in the regional context.

The foundation document can be useful in all aspects of park management to ensure that primary management objectives are accomplished before addressing other factors that are also important, but not directly essential to achieving the park purpose and maintaining its significance. Thus, the development of a foundation document for Canyonlands National Park is necessary to effectively manage the park over the long term and protect park resources and values that are integral to the purpose and identity of the park unit and to address key issues affecting management.

The park atlas is also a part of the foundation project. It is a geographic information system (GIS) product that can be published as a hard copy paper atlas and as electronic geospatial data in a Web-mapping environment. The purpose of the park atlas is to support park operations and to facilitate planning decisions as a GIS-based planning support tool. The atlas covers various geographic elements that are important for park management such as natural and cultural resources, visitor use patterns, and facilities. The park atlas establishes the available baseline GIS information for a park that can be used to support future planning activities. The park atlas is available at

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Part 1: Core Components

Foundation documents include the following core elements:

The park purpose is the specific reason(s) for establishing a particular park. A park purpose statement is grounded in a thorough analysis of the legislation (or executive order) and legislative history of the park, and may include information from studies generated prior to the park’s establishment. The purpose statement goes beyond a restatement of the law to clarify assumptions about what the law means in terms specific to the park.

The significance statements express why the resources and values of the park are important enough to justify national park designation. Statements of park significance describe why an area is important within a global, national, regional, and systemwide context. Significance statements are directly linked to the purpose of the park and are verified by data or consensus that reflect the most current scientific or scholarly inquiry and cultural perceptions because the resources and values may have changed since the park was established.

Interpretive themes connect park resources to relevant ideas, meanings, concepts, contexts, beliefs, and values. They support the desired interpretive objective of increasing visitor understanding and appreciation of the significance of park resources. In other words, interpretive themes are the most important messages to be conveyed to the public about the park. Interpretive themes are based on park purpose and significance.

Fundamental resources and values are features, systems, organisms, processes, visitor experiences, scenes, sounds, smells, or other attributes of the park that merit primary consideration during planning and management because they are essential to achieving park purpose and maintaining park significance.

Other important resources and values are resources and values that are determined to be important and integral to park planning and management, although they are not related to park purpose and significance.

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Brief Description of the Park

Canyonlands National Park is in southeastern Utah, on the Colorado Plateau. The area is mostly high desert characterized by eroded sedimentary rocks including several distinct types of sandstone, shale, and limestone formations. It is rugged and spectacular country. Summers are hot with occasional occurrence of violent thunderstorms. Winters can be cold, with occasional snow. Spring and fall temperatures are usually pleasant.

Canyonlands National Park encompasses approximately 527 square miles. The confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers lies within the park. The rivers divide the park into four districts: (1) Island in the Sky, (2) The Needles, (3) The Maze, and (4) the rivers themselves. While the districts share a primitive desert atmosphere, each retains its own character and offers different opportunities for exploration and encounters with natural and cultural history. The four districts are not directly linked by any roads, so travel between them requires 2 to 6 hours by car.

The Colorado and Green rivers wind through the heart of Canyonlands, cutting through layered sedimentary formations to form four deep and distinctly different canyons known as Labyrinth, Stillwater, Meander, and Cataract. Both rivers are characterized by gentle gradients upstream of the confluence, where “flat water” reaches are ideal for travel in canoes and kayaks. In Cataract Canyon below the confluence, numerous rocky debris flows from steep canyon walls have created a long series of large rapids where sandstone and limestone boulders present obstacles to navigation and provide an opportunity for visitors to experience a world-class reach of whitewater boating that continues downstream from Canyonlands into Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Island in the Sky is positioned between the two great rivers above their confluence and forms the northern and most-visited region of the park. It is composed of two sections, the mesa top above and the White Rim below, the latter consisting of a prominent sandstone bench 1,200 feet below the mesa top and 500–1,000 feet above the rivers. From the Island in the Sky district, visitors can look down on both rivers, view much of the rest of the park, and experience expansive scenic vistas that extend across intervening plateaus and dissected canyons to encompass many significant landmarks of the Colorado Plateau region including the La Sal, Abajo, Henry, and Navajo mountains. The mesa top is notable for its extensive grasslands and numerous scenic viewpoints, and is accessible by automobile, bicycle, and foot, with several hiking trails down to the White Rim. The White Rim is traversed by a rough, primitive road that can be traveled by bicycle, four-wheeldrive vehicle, or by foot.

The Needles District forms the southeast corner of Canyonlands and was named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa sandstone that dominates the area. The district’s extensive backcountry trail system provides many opportunities for long day-hikes and overnight trips. Foot trails and four-wheel-drive roads lead to such features as Tower Ruin, Confluence Overlook, Elephant Hill, Joint Trail, and Chesler Park.

The Maze is the wildest and least accessible district of Canyonlands, ranking as one of the most remote areas in the United States. Travel to the Maze requires more time and a greater degree of self-sufficiency because of the remote location, difficult roads, and primitive trails. Rarely do visitors spend less than three days in the Maze, and a visit here can easily consume a week-long trip. The Orange Cliffs unit of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area shares a western boundary with Canyonlands and is administered under the same backcountry management plan and permit / reservation system.

Horseshoe Canyon contains some of the most significant rock art in North America. The Great Gallery, the best known panel in Horseshoe Canyon, includes well-preserved, lifesized figures with intricate designs. Other impressive sights include spring wildflowers, sheer sandstone walls, and mature cottonwood groves along the intermittent stream in the canyon bottom.

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Park Purpose

Purpose statements identify the specific reason for the establishment of a particular park. Purpose statements are crafted through a careful analysis of the enabling legislation and legislative history that influenced the development of Canyonlands National Park. The park was first designated as Canyonlands National Park when the initial enabling legislation was passed and signed into law on September 12, 1964 (see appendix A for enabling legislation and subsequent amendments). The purpose statement reinforces the foundation for future park management administration and use decisions. The following is the purpose statement for Canyonalands National Park:

The purpose of Canyonlands National Park is to preserve striking geologic landscapes and associated ecosystems in an area encompassing the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers possessing superlative scenic, scientific, and cultural features for the inspiration, benefit, and use of the public.

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Park Significance

Significance statements express why Canyonlands National Park resources and values are important enough to merit national park unit designation. Statements of significance describe why an area is important within a global, national, regional, and systemwide context. These statements are linked to the purpose of the park unit, and are supported by data, research, and consensus. Significance statements describe the distinctive nature of the park and inform management decisions, focusing efforts on preserving and protecting the most important resources and values of the park unit.

The following significance statements have been identified for Canyonlands National Park (please note that these statements are in no particular order):

  • Canyonlands National Park and its expansive natural setting exhibit an array of striking geologic landscapes composed of canyons, mesas, buttes, and spires formed from multiple and varying sedimentary rock formations.
  • Canyonlands National Park protects the confluence, significant reaches, and associated ecosystems of two major western rivers, the Green and Colorado, which have shaped the complex natural and human histories of the park and surrounding region.
  • Canyonlands National Park contains world-class archeological sites and districts, including the Great Gallery, which is the type-site for Barrier Canyon style rock art.
  • An assemblage of roads, many associated with a history of mining and ranching activities, continue to provide visitors with exceptional recreational opportunities to access the backcountry of Canyonlands National Park. · Canyonlands National Park provides incomparable opportunities to view superlative scenery from various perspectives above the rivers and then descend into the midst of these scenic landscapes to experience remote wildness and solitude.
  • The diverse natural landscapes and rich cultural history of Canyonlands National Park provide outstanding opportunities for the scientific study of natural ecosystems and how they are affected by human use and climate in different settings over long periods of time.

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Interpretive Themes

Interpretive themes are often described as the key stories or concepts that visitors should understand after visiting a park—they define the most important ideas or concepts communicated to visitors about a park unit. Themes are derived from—and should reflect—park purpose, significance, resources, and values. The set of interpretive themes is complete when it provides the structure necessary for park staff to develop opportunities for visitors to explore and relate to all of the park significances and fundamental resources and values.

Interpretive themes are an organizational tool that reveal and clarify meaning, concepts, contexts, and values represented by park resources. Sound themes are accurate and reflect current scholarship and science. They encourage exploration of the context in which events or natural processes occurred and the effects of those events and processes. They go beyond a mere description of the event or process to foster multiple opportunities to experience and consider the park and its resources. Themes help to explain why the history of a park is relevant to people who are unconnected to an event, time, or place.

While themes are important as an organizational tool to guide management decisions, they are not intended for public use. The themes offer park staff guidance on focusing on relevant visitor experience, and what matters to the public is how these themes are represented through park services, media, programming, and facilities.

The following interpretive themes have been identified under individual topics for Canyonlands National Park:

  • Geology. The vast and diverse geologic landscapes of Canyonlands National Park are a result of the power of the Colorado River, the persistence of gravity, and the promise of intermittent rainfall in an arid environment.
  • Rivers. Canyonlands National Park’s Green and Colorado rivers are the lifeblood of the region, and provide a stage upon which the history of exploration and development of the American West unfold.
  • Wildness. The remote nature of the backcountry of Canyonlands National Park provides opportunities for visitors to discover and enjoy the wildness and solitude of the desert.
  • Desert Ecology. The climate, diverse geology, and life forms of Canyonlands National Park form a rich, interconnected desert ecosystem.
  • Prehistoric Cultural Resources. The petroglyphs, pictographs, granaries, and other traces of ancestral Puebloans found in Canyonlands National Park serve as windows into the region’s rich human history, and help us better understand and appreciate the lives of these prehistoric people and their relationship with the land.
  • Cultural Landscapes. Past human activities have influenced and shaped what we see and experience in Canyonlands National Park today.

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Fundamental Resources and Values

Fundamental resources and values are those features, systems, processes, experiences, stories, scenes, sounds, smells, or other attributes determined to warrant primary consideration during planning and management processes because they are critical to achieving the park’s purpose and maintaining its significance.

The preeminent responsibility of park managers is to ensure the conservation and public enjoyment of those qualities that are critical (fundamental) to achieving the park’s purpose and maintaining its significance. These qualities are called the park’s fundamental resources and values (FRVs). Fundamental resources and values are closely related to legislative purpose, and are more specific than significance statements. Fundamental resources and values help focus planning and management on what is truly important about the park. If they are allowed to deteriorate, the park purpose and/or significance could be jeopardized.

This distinction is made to ensure that fundamental resources and values receive specific consideration in park planning processes because of their relationship to the park’s purpose and significance.

The following fundamental resources and values have been identified for Canyonlands National Park:

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  • Geologic Landscapes and Features. Canyonlands National Park protects a striking geologic landscape composed of a diverse and multilayered assemblage of canyons, mesas, buttes, and spires, as well as many notable features of great scientific interest including grabens and Upheaval Dome. These landscapes and features were formed by geologic processes such as sedimentation, erosion, salt dissolution and tectonics, and meteorite impact operating over hundreds of millions of years.
  • Green and Colorado Rivers. The Green and Colorado rivers are the lifeblood of the park, and fundamental to their integrity are clean water, native biotic communities, characteristic landforms, and the natural hydrologic, geomorphic, and biotic processes necessary for sustaining them.
  • Cultural Resources. The Salt Creek and Horseshoe Canyon archeological districts, both listed on the National Register of Historic Places, contain important world-class archeological and rock art sites, including the Great Gallery, which is the type-site for Barrier Canyon style rock art. National register-listed properties related to historic grazing and mining activities and a national register-eligible network of roads such as Elephant Hill, Shafer Trail, and White Rim Road are also present in the park.
  • Clean Air and Superlative Scenery. Clean air and undeveloped natural viewsheds afford expansive vistas of geologic landscapes and iconic Colorado Plateau features such as the La Sal, Abajo, Henry, and Navajo mountains. Clean air enhances the color and contrast of landscape features, allows visitors to see great distances, and safeguards ecosystem, visitor, and staff health.
  • Remote Wildness and Solitude. Canyonlands National Park is primarily a backcountry park with limited accessibility. The wilderness character, natural acoustical environment, and dark night skies enhance opportunities to experience the remoteness in solitude.
  • Diverse Assemblage of Colorado Plateau Ecosystems. The park protects a diverse and interconnected assemblage of Colorado Plateau ecosystems, and fundamental to their integrity are clean water, stable soils, native biotic communities, and the hydrologic, geomorphic, and biotic processes necessary for sustaining them.
  • Collaborative Conservation, Science, and Scholarship. Collaboration with external partners and engagement in scientific and scholarly activities are values and processes that are fundamental for achieving the park’s purpose and maintaining its significance in the context of shared landscape values, rapidly changing social and environmental conditions, and uncertainty in outcomes of management decision making.

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Other Important Resources and Values

Canyonlands National Park contains other resources and values that may not be fundamental to the purpose and significance of the park, but are important to consider in management and planning decisions. These are referred to as other important resources and values.

The following other important resources and values have been identified for Canyonlands National Park:

  • Rare and Iconic Wildlife Species. Rare desert bighorn sheep, Mexican spotted owls, peregrine falcons, and other raptors are important components of park ecosystems, and are observed and enjoyed by park visitors.
  • Paleontological Resources. Geologic landscapes in Canyonlands National Park preserve extensive fossil evidence of prehistoric life.
  • Museum Collections. The park’s museum collections contain three-dimensional objects and natural history specimens and artifacts that are representative of the resources within the park’s boundaries. Archives also are a component of museum collections and document park and resource management history.

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Part 2: Dynamic Components

Part 2 consists of two components:

  • special mandates and administrative commitments
  • assessment of planning and data needs

These components may change after this foundation document is published and may need to be updated periodically.


Special Mandates and Administrative Commitments

Many of the management decisions for a park unit are directed or influenced by special mandates and administrative commitments with other federal agencies, state and local governments, utility companies, partnering organizations, and other entities. Special mandates are requirements specific to a park, most often legislative or judicial, that must be fulfilled along with the park purpose. Mandates can be expressed in enabling legislation or in separate legislation following the establishment of the park. They may expand on park purpose or introduce elements unrelated to the purpose of the park. Administrative commitments are, in general, agreements that have been reached through formal, documented processes, often through memoranda of agreement. In this category are such agreements as easements, rights-of-way, arrangements for emergency service response, etc. Special mandates and administrative commitments, in many cases, support a network of partnerships that help fulfill the objectives of the park and facilitate working relationships with other organizations. They are an essential component of managing and planning for Canyonlands National Park.

  • The Clean Air Act, as amended, requires all park units to meet federal, state, and local pollution standards. Additionally, Canyonlands National Park is a mandatory Class I area under the prevention of significant deterioration provisions of the act. This gives the National Park Service an “affirmative responsibility” to protect the air quality and air quality related values (AQRVs) within the park from the adverse effects of air pollution. Air quality related values are resources that are sensitive to air pollution, such as visibility, plants, animals, soils, water, and certain cultural resources. State and federal permitting authorities must consult with the National Park Service regarding new sources of air pollution, and impacts to park air quality related values must be considered in the permitting process. Further, the act requires NPS involvement in national regulatory efforts aimed at eliminating human-caused visibility impairment in all Class I areas.
  • Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. This agreement ensures that the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service continue to enhance efficiencies in each other’s management activities, to coordinate information and outreach efforts, and to foster communications on activities that have the potential to affect the other agency’s management responsibilities.
  • Memorandum of Understanding among the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding air quality analyses and mitigations for federal oil and gas decisions analyzed under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. This memorandum of understanding provides that air quality will be considered, analyzed, and mitigated through an interagency collaborative process. The MOU seeks to safeguard air quality and resources sensitive to air pollution—termed air quality related values—while recognizing the various missions and mandates of the signatory agencies.
  • General Agreement between Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Canyonlands National Park to provide mutual management interest in resource preservation and visitor use in the area of the Orange Cliffs unit in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Canyonlands National Park will maintain a visitor information station, maintenance facility, and employee residences within the boundary of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, at Hans Flat, for the administration of the Maze District and the Orange Cliffs unit.
  • General Agreement between Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Arches and Canyonlands national parks. This agreement is to support shared employee safety, interagency operational communications, emergency medical services, law enforcement and the public safety efforts by making available 24-hour dispatch for after-hours and emergency services from Glen Canyon Interagency Communications Center.
  • Cooperative Agreement between the National Park Service and San Juan County. This agreement is intended to provide cooperative management activities and emergency operations in San Juan County, Canyonlands National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument, and Hovenweep National Monument.
  • Cooperative Agreement among National Park Service, Southeast Utah Group (SEUG), and Grand County. This agreement is intended to provide cooperative management activities and emergency operations in Grand County, Arches National Park, and Canyonlands National Park.

For more information about the existing commitments for the park, please see the inventory of concessions and permits in appendix C.

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Assessment of Planning and Data Needs

Once park purpose and significance statements and fundamental resources and values have been identified, it is important to consider what additional information and planning tasks may be necessary to aid the National Park Service in its mission. The assessment of planning and data needs identifies any inherent conditions or threats contained in the gathered information and determines whether any additional planning steps, data needs, and management efforts may be necessary to maintain or protect the existing fundamental resources and values and other important resources and values.

There are three parts that make up the planning and data needs assessment:

  1. analysis of fundamental and other important resources and values
  2. identification of key or major parkwide issues that need to be addressed by future planning
  3. prioritization of data and planning needs

The analysis of fundamental resources and values and identification of major issues leads up to and supports the identification and prioritization of needed plans and studies.

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Analysis of Fundamental Resources and Values

The analysis of fundamental resources and values articulates the importance of each fundamental resource and value; current condition, potential threats, and the related issues that require consideration in planning and management. Included in the analysis is the identification of relevant laws and NPS policies specific to the preservation and management of the resources at the park. This section of the foundation document will require periodic reviews and updates as monitoring and research improves our understanding of each fundamental resource and value.


The Foundation Document contains additional analysis and appendices. To request more of this information, email us.

Last updated: January 3, 2018

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