Located southeast of the Uinta Mountains at the confluence of the Yampa and Green Rivers on the Utah-Colorado border, Dinosaur National Monument is a federally protected area where dinosaur fossils can be found. The monument is one of the few places in the United States where such fossils can still be readily uncovered . In addition to its paleontological significance, Dinosaur National Monument boasts beautiful scenery and an assortment of other tourist attractions. The monument also houses many Fremont-period petroglyphs. It also serves as an important proving ground for the modern environmental movement.
Earl Douglass, a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, discovered the first dinosaur fossils in the area in 1909. He concluded that between the natural splendor and the presence of fossils, the region would be an ideal setting for a nature museum. Motivated by Douglass’s findings, President Woodrow Wilson declared the area a national monument in 1915. The original monument was a mere eighty acres, but in 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt increased the area of Dinosaur National Monument to the present size of 325 square miles (about 200,000 acres).
One of the most popular attractions of the monument is the Dinosaur Quarry Building, which houses the “Dinosaur Wall,” a tilted bed of rock peppered with exposed and intact fossils. Paleontologists chipped away at the rock layer of the Dinosaur Wall to allow visitors to see fossils in a more authentic setting. Many other fossils found throughout Dinosaur National Monument have been completely unearthed and put on display in the Dinosaur Quarry Building. Dinosaurs are not the only prehistoric fossils found within the monument. Fossils from ancient mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and mollusks discovered within the monument boundaries are also on display within the Quarry Building.
Despite its popularity and significance, a portion of Dinosaur National Monument has been threatened by development. The tremendous public outcry against this proposed development continues to shape wilderness preservation policy to this day. First suggested in 1946, the United States Bureau of Reclamation intended to construct two dams within Dinosaur National Monument as part of the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP): one near Echo Park, and another at Split Mountain, several miles downriver from Echo Park. The CRSP is a comprehensive project that developed the Upper Colorado River Basin in order to generate hydroelectric power, secure water for use in the area, and regulate flooding. The Echo Park and Split Mountain dams were one of many aspects of this large-scale project. However, the prospect of blocking the Green River and thereby flooding Echo Park’s pristine canyons irked many environmental and preservation groups as early as 1949.
Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society and David Brower of the Sierra Club, along with the National Parks Association and Emergency Committee on Natural Resources, spearheaded public opposition to the Echo Park dam. The concerned parties asserted that the Echo Park project would establish a precedent for plundering resources in protected land for commercial benefit. In response to public uproar, Congress dropped the dam from the Upper Basin Project in 1955. The success of preservationist groups in the Echo Park dam controversy was an essential step toward the implementation of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which legally defines and defends wilderness areas.
Thanks to the conservationists’ success in blocking the Echo Park dam project, Dinosaur National Monument has become a popular adventure destination. The soaring river canyons and turbulent waters of the both the Green and Yampa Rivers attract whitewater rafters by the thousands each summer. Besides rafting, many monument visitors choose to hike, fish, and bike throughout the monument.
Home to history, natural majesty, and thrills for the modern tourist, the past and present of the American West is represented at Dinosaur National Monument. Thanks to the efforts of preservationists and environmentalists, this unique space continues to thrive as visitors from near and far come to learn and play.