Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park


Air Quality

The national parks, monuments, forests and recreation areas of the Colorado Plateau have long been popular destinations for travelers. Together with their stunning landscapes, these reserves share another common resource: some of the cleanest air remaining in the contiguous 48 United States. It is clean air that allows sweeping panoramas of color and texture stretching over thousands of square miles. Of course, clean air is also critical for the health of resident plants and animals.

Many visitors to Canyonlands don't see the clear vistas they expect. A haze often hangs in the air, and most of this haze is not natural: it is air pollution, carried on the wind from distant coal-fired power plants and other industrial facilities.

Canyonlands is considered a Class I area under the Clean Air Act, which requires that the park receives the highest level of air- quality protection. Consequently, Canyonlands participates in the National Park Service's comprehensive air resources management program, designed to assess air pollution impacts and protect air quality related resources.

A monitoring station at the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands records ozone and gaseous air pollutants in the atmosphere of the Colorado Plateau.

Disturbed Lands

Though much of Canyonlands remains undeveloped, its lands are not necessarily undisturbed. Much of the area is covered by biological soil crust, a living crust found throughout the world that plays an important role in the ecosystems in which it occurs.

Unfortunately, many human activities negatively affect the presence and health of biological soil crusts. Compressional stresses placed on them by footprints or machinery are extremely harmful, especially when the crusts are dry and brittle. Tracks in continuous strips, like those produced by vehicles or bicycles, create areas that are highly vulnerable to wind and water erosion. Rainfall carries away loose material, often creating channels along these tracks, especially on slopes.

Wind not only blows pieces of the pulverized crust away, thereby preventing reattachment to disturbed areas, but also disrupts the underlying loose soil, often covering nearby crusts. Since crustal organisms need light to photosynthesize, burial can mean death. When large sandy areas are impacted during dry periods, previously stable areas can become a series of shifting sand dunes in just a few years. Air pollutants, both from urban areas and coal-fired power plants, also adversely affect the physiology of these crusts.

A great deal of research about biological soil crust has been conducted at Canyonlands. Soil health and chemistry are measured at transects throughout the park. Certain relict areas, where human impacts (including livestock grazing) have been minimal or nonexistent, are closed to entry and provide crucial control areas to which disturbed areas can be compared.

Centennial Initiative 2016

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016, America invites the world to discover the meaning of national parks to their lives and inspires people to both experience and become devoted to these special places.

On August 25, 2006 - the 90th anniversary of the National Park Service - Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne launched the National Park Centennial Initiative to prepare national parks for another century of conservation, preservation and enjoyment. Since then the National Park Service asked citizens, park partners, experts and other stakeholders what they envisioned for a second century of national parks.

A nationwide series of more than 40 listening sessions produced more than 6,000 comments that helped to shape five centennial goals. The goals and vision were presented to President Bush and to the American people on May 31st in a report called The Future of America's National Parks.

Every national park staff took their lead from this report and created local centennial strategies to describe their vision and desired accomplishments by 2016. This is just the first year, and there are many great things to come as the National Park Service prepares to celebrate 100 years!

To keep up with the Centennial Initiative and to experience the interactive version of The Future of America's National Parks and special features please visit the centennial website at


Lightscape / Night Sky

Many wonders await visitors in Canyonlands, from the natural beauty of the red rock formations to the remains of prehistoric cultures. Archeologists think that the sun, moon and stars were significant to these cultures since these subjects are frequently represented in pottery designs, rock art images and even the alignment of buildings. Can you imagine the awe and mystery felt by prehistoric people as they gazed upon the night sky? That same sky is still available to us today, and is one of Canyonlands' most spectacular features.

National parks preserve some of the darkest skies in the country. In some areas, it's possible to see up to 15,000 stars throughout the night. By contrast, fewer than 500 stars may be visible from more urban environments. To find the darkest parks and document the widespread affects of light pollution, the National Park Service created the Night Sky Team.

What many people don't realize is that light pollution affects more than just astronomers. Nocturnal animals need darkness for survival, and the circadian rhythms of humans and plants rely on an unaltered night sky. The Night Sky Team is laying the groundwork to protect and restore these dark places, ensuring our ability to connect with ancient sky watchers through the starry night and to contemplate our own place within the universe.

Though light pollution is created by a multitude of lights, this problem can be resolved one light at a time. When an outdoor light burns out, consider it an opportunity to install a lower intensity bulb or replace the fixture with one that is more night-friendly. Shielding that directs light downward produces less glare and improves security. As long as people still care about the night sky, we can make a difference.

Water Quality

Canyonlands National Park monitors the water quality of nine springs, seeps and canyon pools, and five sites on the Green and Colorado rivers. After examining the results of monitoring from 1994 through 2004, we can now better answer the most common question that visitors ask: "How is the water?"

But first, another question: "Why monitor?" Water is scarce in the high desert and critical to the area's ecology. The Colorado and Green rivers are constant water sources for wildlife. But during drier times, water in smaller streams, potholes, seeps, and springs becomes critical to wildlife not able to travel to the rivers. Besides the existence of these sources, which we monitor by measuring flow at the sites, their water quality is important. Small actions by park visitors, including taking a dip in a pool while covered in sunscreen, can pollute a water source. Broader threats include climate change, groundwater pumping from nearby wells, and water flowing into the park containing sewage system discharges as well as runoff from farming, roads, energy development, mining or new housing. One-time events, human-induced or natural, can cause short-term impacts. Other threats can cause slower, long-term decreases in water quality and quantity. Though our monitoring can detect one-time events, it is also designed to detect the slower changes.

Scientisits sample river sites spring through fall and other sites monthly every third year. They measure temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, and specific conductivity (related to salinity), collect water samples in sterile containers, and measure flow. Three times a year they survey aquatic life in an effort to understand their relationship to water quality. They test one sample locally for fecal coliform bacteria, and mail the other samples to a state laboratory that tests them for up to 32 chemical, nutrient, mineral and metal components.

The question "How is the water," requires an understanding that water quality is a moving target. Water quality parameters interact with each other and with the environment, and vary seasonally. Certain metal levels vary with water hardness. Dissolved oxygen varies with time of day, amount of aquatic vegetation, agitation, temperature, and pollutants. Water quality standards, set by the state, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and to a lesser extent the National Park Service, reflect this complexity, and also vary depending on use. One pool may have different standards for drinking water, recreation, agriculture, and aquatic life. Aquatic life standards have both chronic limits - a level that is only a problem if sustained - and acute limits.

Despite these complexities, by examining the results from the last eleven years we can see some patterns. We looked for any values that did not fall within standard ranges, and then took a closer look at recurrent conditions, meaning that there were three or more exceedences of a particular standard at a particular site. The number three is arbitrary, but it is useful for focusing on potential problems.

Generally, water quality in Canyonlands National Park is good. In eleven years of monitoring, many parameters were always within standards or at least never consistently broke standards. These include pH, alkalinity, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chloride, chromium, iron, lead, mercury, nitrogen, silver and zinc. However, the river sites have a few parameters that were frequently or constantly higher than standards, and all of the spring and pool sites have one or a few parameters with recurrent high readings.

Phosphorus is often high at all of the sites, especially on the rivers. Phosphorus can come from fertilizers, detergents, human, domestic animal, and wildlife wastes, wind-deposited dust, soil leaching, and other geologic sources. High phosphorus levels at the pools and springs probably result from the natural sources among these. Two Needles District sites, Cave Spring and near Peekaboo Spring in Salt Creek, had the highest phosphorus levels among the pools and springs. Both sites are frequented by visitors and may be occasionally contaminated by human waste. The higher phosphorus levels in river waters result from upstream sources, probably dominated by agricultural runoff and occasional overflow from sewage treatment plants.

Dissolved solids, suspended solids and turbidity were consistently high at all river sites and were high at least three times at roughly half of the smaller water sites. The high readings at spring and pool sites probably correspond to sampling after big rain events, except at Peekaboo Spring, which is frequently agitated by vehicles on a four-wheel-drive road that crosses the site. The rivers collect runoff for hundreds of miles upstream, with natural sediment input increased by grazing, agriculture, roads, off-road vehicle use, fires, drought, and anything else that removes natural vegetation from the land.

Aluminum and selenium leach from some rock layers. Both were often above the chronic aquatic life standard at several sites, but in most cases, they probably reflect short-term and not chronic conditions. These marginally high levels of aluminum were measured at three sites in the Maze District and from the river sites, with high levels most common on the Green River. Selenium was marginally high 12 to 25 percent of the time on the Colorado River and most of the time at one Needles spring site in Little Spring Canyon.

Sulfate levels were above drinking water standards almost half the time on the Colorado River, and less frequently on the Green River and in Horseshoe Canyon. Manganese was never high on the rivers, but exceeded a drinking water standard at most spring and pool sites at least three times. Both leach from rock layers, though sulfate can also have human-induced sources.

The Peekaboo Spring site has the only water temperatures above the standards for aquatic life, probably because the road eliminates plants and their shade, and the shallow water is more easily warmed.

Fecal coliform bacteria levels are generally non-existent or low at springs and pools, though the standard for swimming was surpassed once or twice at most sites, and four times at the Peekaboo Spring site. Most high counts correspond to times when runoff increased following rains, or in the case of Peekaboo Spring, after vehicles drove through. Runoff washes in fecal matter from wildlife, upstream cattle, or humans, and bacteria cling to sediment, which usually settles out within a couple days. Coliform can't be tested at the river sites because of a quick processing requirement.

The monitoring program cannot test for all pollutants, and does not test for many human pathogens, including giardia and some other human pathogens. To protect yourself, always carry your drinking water or a suitable treatment system.

To preserve water quality, bury your waste at least 200 feet from any water source, and don't swim in pools, especially small ones with no flow through them. If you need to cool off, collect a small amount of water from a pool, move away, and pour the water over your head and clothes. And as you do, think about the role of those precious drops in this arid landscape.

Soundscape / Noise

Noise, in the form of traffic, horns, sirens, dogs, jackhammers, and overhead jets, is a type of pollutant. National parks and other lands located in remote, unpopulated areas remind people how noisy their everyday worlds are and how precious silence is. Besides the obvious stress factor, other specific effects of noise on human beings have been well documented. Long-term exposure to high levels of noise decreases hearing ability, increases the level of cholesterol in the blood, and raises blood pressure. The impacts of noise pollution on natural resources are not well known.

However, remote western parks are not immune to noise pollution. Sounds can travel great distances in the desert. A nearly constant source of noise in the backcountry of Canyonlands and many other areas is aircraft, primarily high commercial jets. Scenic flights are not as frequent, though the noise produced is usually much greater since they fly at lower elevations and frequently circle above popular sights.

Motorboat traffic on the Colorado and Green rivers is another source of noise in the backcountry of Canyonlands. In fact, the National Park Service has been trying various ways to reduce the noise created by their patrol boats, including using four-stroke outboard engines and jet drives.

Although air, water and bus tours provide some visitors access to remote areas they might not otherwise see, such activities can be inconsistent with the agency's mission to preserve natural conditions. Researchers at Canyonlands monitor sound levels and intruding noises in order to establish baseline data on sound levels in the park. This information will enable the National Park Service to work more effectively with tourism and aviation interests toward preserving or restoring natural quiet in national parks nationwide.