A Grand Old River

The Island Acres Part of
James M. Robb Colorado River State Park
Fruita, CO
Courtesy Daniel Smith, Photographer

Hi, I’m Holly Strand of Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

The Colorado River is the largest waterway in the southwest. 1,450 miles long, the Colorado River basin drains 248,000 square miles in 7 large states. In Utah, the river enters near Cisco south of I-70, winds its way through Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, then flows through Glen Canyon and exits south into Arizona.

Less than 100 years ago, the Colorado River wasn’t in Utah or even in Colorado. Until 1920, “Colorado River” referred only to the river section downstream from Glen and Grand Canyons. Upstream, it was called the Grand River all the way up the headwaters in the Colorado Rockies. Thus we have Grand County in Utah and the town of Grand Junction in Colorado.

The Colorado River from
Dead Horse Point State Park,
near Moab,Utah, USA
Courtesy Phil Armitage, Photographer

According to Jack Schmidt, professor in Utah State University’s Department of Watershed Sciences and a longtime scholar of the river, the good citizens of the state of Colorado weren’t pleased with the Colorado River’s location.
So in 1920, the Colorado Legislature renamed Colorado’s portion of the Grand River, with a somewhat awkward result: The Colorado River began in Colorado, became the Grand River at the border with Utah and then became the Colorado River again at the confluence with the Green.

This arrangement did not last long –again because of a Colorado legislator. U.S. Representative Edward T. Taylor, petitioned the Congressional Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce to rename the entire river as the Colorado. Despite objections from Utah and Wyoming representatives and the U.S. Geological Survey, the name change was made official by the U.S. Congress on July 25, 1921.

Confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers
in Canyonlands National Park
Courtesy USGS
Photo by Marli Miller, Photographer

The objections were legitimate: In the 1890s the Federal Board on Geographic Names established the policy of naming rivers after their longest tributary. The former Grand River of Colorado and Utah was shorter than the Green River tributary by quite a bit. So the Green river should have prevailed and the Colorado should have been one of its tributaries.

However, if you judge tributary primacy by volume, the Colorado wins hands down. 100 years ago, the upper Colorado (or former Grand River) had a significantly higher total flow than the Green.

Confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers
in Canyonlands National Park
Courtesy National Park Service

But what’s in a name? Prior to widespread European settlement, the Grand River was known as Rio Rafael and before that, different parts of the river had numerous Native American and Spanish names. A thousand years from now the rapidly evolving Colorado could have an entirely different identity. The main thing is that Utahns can enjoy and appreciate the habitat, scenery and many resources that this important waterway provides.

Thanks to the USU College of Natural Resources and the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting research and development of this Wild About Utah topic.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.

Map of the Colorado River Watershed by Karl Musser based on USGS data This file is licensed under the CCA ShareAlike 2.5 License.
Map of the Colorado River Watershed
by Karl Musser based on USGS data
This file is licensed under the
CCA ShareAlike 2.5 License.

Credits:

 

Images:

JamesMRobbColorado_riverDanielSmith.jpg: Taken in the Island Acres Part of James M. Robb Colorado River State park by Daniel Smith and released into the Public domain.

DeadHorsePtSP_UtahPhilArmitage.jpg: The Colorado River from Dead Horse Point State Park, near Moab, Utah, USA. Photo by Phil Armitage (May be used for any purpose)

ConfluenceUSGSMarliMiller.jpg: Confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers in Canyonlands National Park. USGS Photo by Marli Miller.

ConfluenceNPS.jpg: Confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers in Canyonlands National Park. National Park Service.

Colorado River Watershed Map, by Karl Musser based on USGS data, licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License: In short: you are free to share and make derivative works of the file under the conditions that you appropriately attribute it, and that you distribute it only under a license identical to this one. Official license


Text: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Holly Strand, Content reviewed by Jack Schmidt of Utah State University’s Department of Watershed Sciences and a longtime scholar of the Colorado River.

Sources & Additional Reading

Many years ago, the Colorado River was just Grand, Summit Daily News, Frisco, CO, Dec 23, 2003, http://www.summitdaily.com/article/20031223/OPINION/312230302

Largest Rivers in the United States, J.C. Kammerer, USGS, Rev May 1990, http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/1987/ofr87-242/

Benke, A. C., and C. E. Cushing (editors). 2005. Rivers of North America. Academic/Elsevier. Amsterdam/Boston, 1168 pages.

Casey, Robert L. Journey to the High Southwest. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot, 2007, p. 20.

Colorado Historical Society, Frontier Historical Society, www.bioguide.congress.gov

http://www.postindependent.com/article/20080325/VALLEYNEWS/68312863

”First Biennial Report of the Utah Conservation Commission, 1913,” Salt Lake City, Utah: The Arrow Press Tribune-Reporter Printing Co., 1913. p. 131.

McKinnon, Shaun. “River’s headwaters determined by politicians, not geography.” The Arizona Republic, 25 July 2004.

Buttes & Mesas

Audio:  mp3 Listen to WildAboutUtah

Book Cliffs
Courtesy: Bureau of Land Management
US Dept. of the Interior

Hi, I’m Holly Strand of Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

Not long ago , driving from Logan to Moab, I was admiring the dramatic and austere landscape features from the highway. To the north were the vertical escarpments of the Book Cliffs—gray slopes and cliffs that extend all the way from Price, Utah, to Grand Junction, Colorado. Gazing at them from the highway, I wondered : Are they plateaus? mesas? buttes? Any self-respecting Utahn should know the difference between these terms. But even with a master’s degree in geography, the concepts had become fuzzy in my mind with the passage of time.

When I got back home, I turned to Home Ground, a collection of American landscape definitions edited by Barry Lopez. Here you’ll read that a plateau is an extensive area of nearly level land that rises abruptly above a surrounding landscape on at least one side. In this sense, the Tavaputs is a classic Utah plateau and the Book Cliffs form its south-facing escarpment. The Wasatch Plateau –home of the headwaters of the San Rafael and Fremont Rivers –is another classic plateau.

Professor Valley:
Dome Plateau is really a mesa
from Sorrel River Ranch
Courtesy Matt Ceniceros

Plateaus are sometimes called tablelands. This can be confusing, because plateaus aren’t necessarily elevated on all four sides and they are too big to look like tables. But mesas do look like tables and the word mesa means “table” in Spanish. A mesa is a flat-topped mountain or rock mass, usually capped with a layer of weather-resistant rock. In general, a mesa is smaller than a plateau, but the size difference between them is not defined in any absolute terms.

At least everyone seems to agree that a mesa is always wider than it is tall. A butte, on the other hand, is always taller than it is wide. At one point in its development, the butte was probably part of a mesa. Then, over time, the connecting rock eroded away. I’ve often heard buttes referred to as a mesa’s child, or orphan. As a child, the butte’s parent mesa still exists nearby ; erosion has removed an expanse of rock leaving two structures instead of one. When the butte is an orphan, the surrounding rock has been completely removed, leaving a solitary outpost of resistant geologic history.

Eventually, even with a resistant cap, a butte will be weathered down to a landform that is narrower than it is tall. Then it becomes a spire. Synonyms for a spire include tower, monolith or monument.

Close-up of Fisher Towers
in Professor Valley
Courtesy Utah Geological Survey

You’ll often find that a particular butte is called Such and Such Mesa, and a mesa may be called Such and Such Butte or Plateau. This is because local names given by early explorers and settlers stuck whether or not they were consistent with any accepted definition. Thus, in the cliff-rimmed Professor Valley northwest of Moab, Dome Plateau is really a mesa and Convent Mesa is really a butte. And Grand Mesa, to the east of Grand Junction, is a whole lot larger than Beckwith Plateau near Green River, UT.

For pictures of Utah plateaus, buttes and mesas, check out our web page: www.wildaboututah.org.
Thanks to the Sorrel River Ranch Resort and Spa for supporting the development of this Wild About Utah topic. The Ranch offers deluxe lodging and services on a scenic bend of the Colorado River, 20 minutes from Moab in the spectacular Professor Valley.

And to Dr. Jack Schmidt in the Watershed Sciences Dept. at Utah State University.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center I’m Holly Strand

Credits:

Images:

  1. “Book Cliffs” Source: BLM
  2. “Professor Valley: Dome Plateau is really a mesa” Source: Sorrel River Ranch (Matt Ceniceros)
  3. “Professor Valley: Convent Mesa is really a butte” Source: Sorrel River Ranch (Matt Ceniceros)
  4. “Close-up of Fisher Towers in Professor Valley” Source: Utah Geological Survey

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, Barry Lopez, Debra Gwartney, 2006, Trinity University Press, San Antonio, TX
http://www.amazon.com/Home-Ground-Language-American-Landscape/dp/1595340246

Paleontological Paradise

Dinosaurs & Fossils
Photo Courtesy
Utah Geological Survey

Hi, I’m Holly Strand for Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

Mongolia, China, and United States have produced far more dinosaur fossils than any other countries in the world. And Utah is a prime dinosaur site within the United States. Scattered around Utah are several active quarries, including the world famous Carnegie Quarry in Dinosaur National Monument and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry outside of Price. Paleontologists are beginning to find that the Grand Staircase Escalante Area is another prolific boneyard. In their day, dinosaurs roamed almost all parts ofthe known world, so what makes Utah so exceptional for dinosaur discoveries?

First of all, it’s important to understand that the vast majority of dinosaurs lived and died without leaving any fossil traces. Thus, what we find today is an extremely small percentage of the total of all dinosaur matter. In order to be preserved a creature needs to be buried or frozen almost immediately upon death, Given that the world was pretty warm in the age of the dinosaurs, most of today’s fossils come from individuals that died in or near a sand dune, lake or sea and were then quickly covered by sand or mud. Dinosaurs lived in the late-Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods of the Mesozoic era –that is 225-65 million years ago. At that time, what-would-be-become Utah featured both a shallow inland sea and dunes.. So dinosaurs who lived and died here had a much better chance of being fossilized.

Once fossils are well preserved, certain conditions will increase the probability that they will be found. First of all, you want exposed Mesozoic rock, since dinosaurs lived and died in the Mesozoic era. The Morrison and Cedar Mountain Formation are both from the Mesozoic and are extremely rich in dinosaur fossils.. In fact, Utah has one of the most detailed Mesozoic rock records in the world. Certain types of sedimentary rock –including sandstones, mudstones and limestones –are most promising for fossils and Utah has plenty of these.

Another condition for good fossil hunting is a dry environment. Desert and semi-deserts are optimal for discovery, since decomposition is slowed. With little or no vegetation on the ground, wind and water erosion increases and more ancient fossils are uncovered. In this regard also, Utah is perfect, having just the right amount of water. There’s enough to cause occasional and severe erosion to expose new rock, but not enough to encourage the amount of plant growth that will anchor soil or reduce visibility of the ground.

In the past 2 decades, dinosaur discovery and research has been enjoying a renaissance with plenty of new species being unearthed.. In an upcoming episode, I”ll talk about some exciting new discoveries in our state.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy Geology.Utah.gov, http://geology.utah.gov/esp/paleo/images/dinodig.jpg

Text: Stokes Nature Center – Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading

Dodson, Peter. 1990. Counting dinosaurs: How many kinds were there? Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci USA. Evolution. Vol 87, pp. 7608-7612.

Handwerk, Brian. 2008. Amazing Dinosaur Trove Discovered in Utah National Geographic News June 17

Norman, David. 2005. .Dinosaurs A Very Short Introduction. Oxford Univ. Press

Utah Geological Survey/Dinosaurs and Fossils. http://geology.utah.gov/utahgeo/dinofossil/index.htm (accessed Sept 12, 2008)

Are We in the Rockies?

Snow and the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah
Courtesy NASA Visible Earth,
Jacques Descloitres,
MODIS Land Rapid Response Team,
NASA/GSFC

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

For awhile now, I assumed that living on a bench on the eastern edge of Cache Valley, meant that I was living on the very western edge of the Rocky Mountains. But is the Bear River Range really in the Rockies? Are the Wasatch Mountains in general?

Peakbagger.com, which features a hierarchical system of mountain range classification, says that the Utah Rockies are represented by two main mountain massifs the Uintas and the Wasatch.

But according to Halka Chronic, author of Roadside Geology of Utah, we are definitely out: The Wasatch Range, steeply faulted on its western side, was once considered to be part of the Rocky Mountains, formed in the late Cretaceous to early Tertiary period. The Wasatch is now known to be younger than the Rockies and is considered the easternmost part of the Basin and Range region. Chronic identifies Heber Valley as the easternmost basin of the Basin and Range. The Basin and Range is a huge arid region in Utah, Nevada and adjacent states. Within it, narrow north-south oriented mountain ranges alternate with valleys filled with erosional sediment.

I turned to some Utah State University geologists for help. As usual, the answer to what I think is a simple question turns out to be complicated. Sue Morgan considers the Wasatch to be the easternmost edge of the Basin and Range because the mountains were formed by normal faulting characteristic of the Basin and Range. But, she points out, that the Utah Geological Survey considers the Wasatch to be part of the Middle Rockies.

Dave Liddell says the answer to my question is a matter of scale. If you are looking at North America from space those of us on the Wasatch Front could justifiably consider ourselves located on the edge of the continental–scale Rocky Mountain system. However, the closer look, you have to start taking into consideration lots of fine scale variations and categorizations; this makes drawing a boundary between the Rockies and the Basin and Range province extremely complex. Liddell would put Cache Valley in the Basin and Range because of its formation by pull apart tectonics. The rest of the Wasatch Front is Basin and Range for the same reason. But most geologists put Bear Lake in the Rockies. So perhaps the Wasatch is a large transition zone.

Next time the subject comes up—and there’s no guarantee that it will ever come up—I’m probably going to favor the argument that the Wasatch Mountains are outside the Rockies and that most Utahns live in the Basin and Range region. But if some of you Wasatch Front residents really want to live at the foot of the Rockies, that’s fine too–you can cite the Utah Geological Survey. Now that I decided to go with Basin and Range, I’ll want to find out more about the plants and animals that live here. So you can expect to hear more about them in future programs.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=62272

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading