STEAMBOAT SPRINGS (AP) – In the time since the members of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition yelled at the canyon walls of Echo Park, an untold number of people have heard their own voices echo off Steamboat Rock eight, 10 or 12 times.
And before Powell got there, perhaps Native Americans and trappers lobbed their own voices at the cliffs to hear the phenomena.
On a map, the Yampa River twists downstream from its headwaters in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, cross country through Routt and Moffat counties, until its flows mix with the Green River at Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument.
Members of the 1869 Powell expedition were the first to make that map, and according to Powell’s journal, they reached Echo Park on June 17, 1869 – 150 years ago.
Powell and his men filled in one of the few remaining blank spots on the map of what is now the United States and, along the way, gave many landmarks their names, including Echo Park and the Gates of Lodore. At the time, the Colorado River was a line of best-guess drawn on maps of the West.
“They knew the Colorado River progressed down generally to Las Vegas, but the Grand Canyon north up to Moab – most of that area was just blank on the map. They didn’t have any real understanding of what was out there,” said Ray Sumner, a Colorado River historian and anthropologist, who happens to be the great-great-grandson of Jack Sumner, the man who served as Powell’s lead boatman on the 1869 expedition.
While maps were lost to whitewater on the 1869 expedition, Powell’s later expeditions built upon what was learned in the first expedition to produce the first complete maps of the Colorado River.
After 150 years, Echo Park looks much the same as it did when Powell passed through. You can look out from a ledge above the confluence and watch the river wind around the “foot of a rock about 700 feet high and a mile long,” as Powell described the rock in his journal. And still, just as Powell wrote, “willows border the river, clumps of box elder are seen and a few cottonwoods stand at the lower end.”
“These are words that were written 150 years ago, and we still have the ability to go back into very specific locations and see the direct inspiration for those words, and in many places, especially within Dinosaur National Monument, there are very little changes,” said Sonya Popelka, a park ranger at Dinosaur.
“We can still experience the same experiences as well,” she said. “Not just standing in the same place, but hearing the bird choruses. Seeing stars in the canyon. Hearing our words echo off those same rocks. Having that thrill and danger of rapids. That’s something I think is really powerful. It’s not just the words. It’s the experiences of 150 years ago that have also been preserved here.”
Rallying cry for conservationFor 1,000 years, humans have passed through the cliffs of Echo Park, but that nearly wasn’t the case.
Petroglyphs in the area point to the fact that humans were in Echo Park a 1,000 years ago. The Fremont people lived there 800 to 1,200 years ago. More recently, Ute and Shoshone tribes lived there. Many still live in the area today.
By the 1770s, Catholic priests passed through the area as they traveled to missions that had just been established in California. In the 1800s, the remote canyon lands attracted outlaws looking for places to lie low, while beavers and their pelts brought trappers and mountain men to the area. One group of them, trappers working for William Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Co., might’ve been the first Europeans to see Echo Park. Ranchers started trying to raise cattle on farms at the bottom of steep cliffs.
The national monument was established in 1915, six years after fossil beds were discovered in what’s now the western portion of the park, according to the National Parks Foundation. In 1938, the monument’s boundaries expanded into the canyon lands it now occupies on the border of Colorado and Utah.
Echo Park also marked a turning point within the modern environmental movement.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation explored damming the Yampa and Green rivers just below Echo Park, which would’ve inundated the Yampa to its confluence with Little Snake River. Environmental groups fought the dam, arguing that placing a dam within the monument would violate the National Park Service Act of 1916.
The plan was abandoned in 1955, and the Bureau of Reclamation instead built a larger than originally planned reservoir on the Colorado River at Glen Canyon.
“Echo Park became that rallying cry for a lot of different conservation organizations that fought that proposal and got the dams removed out of the Colorado River Project, which protected that area in the way that we see it today,” said Dan Johnson, chief of interpretation and visitor services at Dinosaur.
Pressures on the riverWhile it’s easy to imagine Echo Park remaining the same for another 150 years, less water and changes to the habitat plants and animals use on the Yampa threatens that image.
Friends of the Yampa President Kent Vertrees said Echo Park serves as “a living laboratory of modern river management,” where the Green and Yampa meet. While there are reservoirs in the headwaters of the Yampa, the amount of water in the river still follows its natural ebbs and flows. Flows on much of the Green River are regulated by engineers releasing water out of Flaming Gorge Reservoir.
“Below this confluence and all the way down to Lake Powell, the Green River has this pulse of water at high water that is unmanaged and unregulated,” Vertrees said. “The Yampa is providing this level of wildness all the way down the Yampa itself and all the way down to Lake Powell.”
Johnson said this hybrid river, with its woody debris and sediment, “restores the natural balance” to the Green River below the confluence, which affects everything from insects to endangered fish.
But those flows from the Yampa are seeing increased pressure, as more frequently, there just isn’t as much water in the river. For a few days last year, the Yampa River dwindled down to a trickle in its sandy bed at Deerlodge Park.
Invasive species – many of which take up more water than native plants – are crowding riverbanks and spreading along the Yampa.
“We only manage this lower section of it,” Johnson said. “It’s really going to take all of us who live along the entire river corridor and watershed working together if people feel this is something valuable to protect and preserve for the future.”