Monuments for the next generation

If you’ve never been there, you definitely want to go.

By CVI Deputy Director Kate Thorpe; photos by Kevin Murar

Dinosaur National Monument is located on the southeast flank of the Uinta Mountains. Thrust out of the earth between 70 million and 40 million years ago, the Uintas contain sedimentary rocks that reveal the rich story of the earth’s history. That story would have remained buried under thousands of feet of strata if it wasn’t for the Green and Yampa rivers, which cut deep sandstone canyons into the high desert.

This is where we went on our 71-mile, five-day river trip in May. We floated the Yampa River, a major undammed tributary of the Green River. There were seven adults and four children. For the kids, it was an adventure with friends and family. For us, it was more than that. It was a transference of our inheritance to the next generation. For me, it was an emotional reminder of the things I work for everyday.

Just one week before out trip, the Department of Interior began a review of 23 national monuments under the presumption that some monuments need to be eliminated or reduced. Dinosaur is not on that list of monuments, but you better believe there are people out there who would like to see the area’s protections removed. In fact, the confluence of the Yampa and Green rivers, near a place called Echo Park, was once slated for a massive hydroelectric project that would have buried both rivers under a huge reservoir. The only thing that prevented the project was the hard work of conservationists from an earlier generation.

That history was on my mind as we floated past the confluence of the Green River and entered Echo Park. I felt deep reverence and respect for all those individuals whose work protected such a sublime place so that my generation could experience it.

But it was the next generation that made our trip so special. My friends’ children reminded me that it’s my responsibility to pass places like our national monuments on to the next generation. And that doesn’t come easy. As we’ve all seen, there are powerful politicians who prioritize patronage over the next generation. This isn’t a conflict of policy ideas. It’s a fundamental disagreement of what it means to be American.

For a majority of us, being American means protecting our American landscapes and passing them on to our children and grandchildren. Yet there’s more. Being American is also about teaching the next generation skills we learned from our parents and grandparents. And doing so on the lands they fought to protect. That was our heart-felt mission for four days and 71-miles in the heart of Dinosaur National Monument. Seven adults teaching four children the places, the skills and the values that defines us uniquely as Americans. It doesn’t get any better.

We negotiated rapids with the calm and deference of seasoned river rats. We set up tents, kitchens and groovers. We pointed out flora and fauna. We reveled in the quiet, the solitude and the moment. During this eloquent, and sometimes contentious process, we were passing on the knowledge, values and attitudes to the next generation. In 20 to 30 years, they will do the same — in the very same place.

It’s impossible to take a trip on the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument without feeling humbled. The size of the canyons; the power of the river; the hundreds of millions of years of earth’s history in the rocks. It all combines to create a sense of gratitude. And among those sandstone cliffs streaked with desert varnish are the legacies of people who made our river trip possible. Our national monuments, our national parks and our public lands aren’t just acreage. They are part of who we are. They were brought to us by the work of those before us and they will be left, through a continued struggle, to those who come after we are long gone.

Being part of that process is something so special, so solemn, so edifying, that it can be intimidating. Yet there is work to be done and I’m incredibly lucky to be part of it.