Utah History Encyclopedia


By Michael Christensen
Utah's three main geographic provinces--the Basin and Range (western Utah); the Rocky Mountain Range (northeastern Utah); and the Colorado Plateau (southwestern Utah)--provide some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. The beauty, immensity, and grandeur of Utah's geography was realized early by fur trappers, government explorers, and Mormon pioneers. However, for the early part of the state's history no mechanism existed to preserve these scenic wonders. Though Yellowstone was the nation's first national park (established in 1872), the movement to set aside the nation's scenic wonders more truly developed from the Progressive Movement, a period of time covering approximately 1890 to 1920. Four national parks (Yosemite, Sequoia, King's Canyon, and Mount Rainier) were established in the 1890s. In 1916 Congress established the National Park Service. Chicago businessman Stephen T. Mather served as its first director. At the time the Park Service was created, sixteen national parks and twenty-one national monuments covering over 7,000 square miles had already been designated. When Mather left the service in 1929, twenty-five national parks and thirty-two national monuments covering 16,000 square miles had been established.

During the first three decades of the twentieth century, some of Utah's scenic wonders were recognized and set aside as either national parks or national monuments. Zion and Natural Bridges were the first two areas to be set aside. This was done by President Taft in 1908. After the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, Zion was made a national park. Prior to World War II the following national parks and national monuments were established in Utah: Rainbow Bridge, 1910; Dinosaur, 1915; Hovenweep and Timpanogos Cave, 1923; Bryce Canyon, 1928; Arches, 1929; Cedar Breaks, 1933; and Capitol Reef, 1937. Though established as national areas, and therefore protected, they were not visited by great numbers of people, at least compared to the number of visitors after World War II.

The history of parks and outdoor recreation in Utah (and in the nation, for that matter) is essentially a post-World War II history. Prior to that period most Americans did not have the time or the means to spend on such types of recreation. But in the decades after the war, America entered upon one of its longest and steadiest periods of growth and prosperity. The key to this approximately twenty-five-year growth period was an increasing output as the nation's economy grew at a rate of 3.5 percent per year. The Gross National Product grew from $200 billion in 1946 to over $1 trillion in 1973, a 400 percent increase. Even after adjusting for inflation the increase was over 100 percent. On a per capita basis, the GNP rose by more than 60 percent during this time. Even more importantly, per capita consumption grew by 62 percent. In other words, Americans not only had more money to spend but were spending more of what they had.

This upward march resulted in a marked increase in the standard of living. Between 1946 and 1960 real purchasing power rose by 38 percent. Suddenly Americans could afford more than the bare necessities. Goods and services previously beyond the means of many were now within reach. Along with this growth in spendable income came an increase in leisure time. For most Americans in the postwar decades the average work week decreased by several hours.

This new affluence and additional leisure time created a burgeoning demand for the latest goods such as television. The number of households with television sets jumped from 8,000 in 1946 to 61,000,000 in 1970. Another major beneficiary was spectator sports. Professional athletes such as Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays in baseball and Bob Cousey and Bill Russell in basketball became the heroes of the time. Attendance at three major-league professional sports--football, basketball, and baseball)--rose from approximately 20,000,000 in 1950 to 44,000,000 in 1970.

Even more important for Utah was growth in the number of vacationers. Previously restricted to the rich, extended vacations now became an annual event for most middle-class Americans. Other social changes affected the growing popularity of vacations and other forms of outdoor recreation: a greater concern for physical fitness, a national concern about the environment and the loss of open space, and the inauguration of the three-day holiday weekend. This trend in vacationing can be seen in the increase of visitors to the nation's parks. State parks visitation across the country grew from 114 million in 1950 to 474 million in 1970. Annual visits to national parks grew at an even faster pace. In 1950, 33 million people visited the national parks; by 1970 that number had increased to 172 million. These were growth rates of over 400 percent for the nation's state parks and over 500 percent for the national parks.

Utah's national parks were no exception to the trend. In 1960 Utah's nine national parks and monuments were visited by 1.4 million people, two-thirds of them going to Zion and Bryce Canyon. In 1970 more than 4 million people visited the state's 14 national parks, monuments, historic sites, and recreation areas. To add further to Utah's prestige as a premier recreation and vacation spot, the national government had created two new recreation areas, one new park, and one historic site. They were Flaming Gorge, 1958; Glen Canyon and Canyonlands, 1964; and Golden Spike, 1965. One of the more controversial areas to be established was Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The area's main feature is Lake Powell, created by the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. This dam created one of the largest man-made lakes in the world and a breathtaking recreation spot. The lake covers more than 225 square miles of area and has 1,960 miles of shoreline. It also buried in its depths a spectacular canyon--a fact that environmental and conservation groups are still bitter about.

With the addition of these new parks and recreation areas, the National Park Service owned and managed 3.7 percent of the state's land--more than 1.9 million acres.

In 1970 Zion National Park was still the most visited park but Bryce Canyon had been surpassed by the two new recreation areas, Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon. By 1988 Glen Canyon had an annual visitation of 3.5 million. It alone accounted for 40 percent of the 8.5 million visitors to Utah's national park areas. With Zion accounting for another 23 percent, these two parks received 63 percent of all visits to the state's fourteen national parks and recreation areas.

To further meet this demand for outdoor recreation, the Utah Legislature in 1957 created the Utah State Parks and Recreation Commission (changed in 1967 to the Division of State Parks and Recreation), which began creating a state parks system. In 1957 the state designated four state parks: the old state prison in Sugar House (now Sugarhouse park and administered by Salt Lake County), This Is the Place Monument in Salt Lake City, the Territorial Statehouse in Fillmore, and Camp Floyd in Utah County. By 1970 there were 34 state parks spread throughout the state's 29 counties and visited by 2.4 million people. Two-thirds of all visitations were at seven of the thirty-four parks: Wasatch Mountain (327,000), This Is the Place Monument (261,000), Willard Bay (258,000), Utah Lake (255,000), Rockport Lake (208,000), Great Salt Lake (198,000), and the Natural History Museum (141,000).

By 1991 the state had 45 state parks and visitation exceeded 5 million. These parks provided camping, boating, swimming, golfing, horseback riding, off-highway vehicle riding, and snowmobiling, as well as educational experiences in several museums, archaeological parks, and historical parks. Over half of the parks were located at reservoirs or lakes, and these were the parks that had grown the most in visitation. Clearly, the trend seen at Glen Canyon was also being experienced in the state parks system--water-related recreation sites were the most popular. The two exceptions were Wasatch Mountain State Park and Pioneer Trail State Park. Wasatch Mountain is a huge park in Summit County. It has a beautiful golf course which attracts thousands in the summer and great cross-country and snowmobiling courses in the winter. In 1991 this park attracted more than 720,000 visitors, which was 16 percent of total state park visitation and more than any other single park. Pioneer Trail State Park is centered around This Is the Place Monument; but in the 1970s the state began developing the area with a living-history village portraying pioneer life in Utah prior to the coming of the railroad. In 1991 the park attracted 420,000 visitors.

Utah's great scenery has provided the state a large tourism industry potential. A 1986 study done by the state government showed that approximately 11 million people visited the state and that 50,000 Utahns were employed in the tourism industry. Two-thirds of the visitors to Utah are summer vacationers traveling to and/or through the state, often with a destination of one or more of the national and state parks of the state. Though important to the state as a whole, the tourism industry has become even more critical to the rural counties in which the parks and recreation areas are located. Tourism has become the main industry in many of these mostly southern Utah counties. The 1989 Economic Report to the Governor cited eight Utah counties that were considered tourism dependent; they were Beaver, Iron, Washington, Kane, Garfield, Grand, Summit, and Daggett. In the foreseeable future we can expect to see even greater growth in visitation to Utah's park and recreation areas, which will more than ever necessitate their enlightened management and conservation.