Lauren Wood: This is our chance to protect Labyrinth Canyon

Lauren Wood

Last year, I floated the Green River through Labyrinth Canyon with my family, three generations of muddy happy river runners in one oar rig. In between magic moments of wildness and quiet, we’d get a waft of motor oil and hear the roar of vehicles on the east side of the canyon.

At one point, my mother turned to me and said, “I thought they just designated this ‘wild and scenic.’ Isn’t this supposed to be wilderness?”

My mother’s confusion at the noise and pollution is easy enough to understand. The Green River is designated as a scenic river under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act through the 40-mile calm stretch of Labyrinth Canyon. The west side of the canyon is also protected as congressionally designated wilderness. The east side, however, is not yet protected. Fortunately, we now have an opportunity to change that.

As a lifelong resident of Utah and the co-owner of my family’s river rafting company, Holiday River Expeditions, I have spent my life running the Green River. I felt great relief when I learned that the Bureau of Land Management’s draft travel management plan for Labyrinth Canyon included a legitimate conservation option.

Alternative B closes off the most intrusive motorized access points on the east side of the otherwise quiet lazy river canyon. It doesn’t cut off all access to motorized vehicles, but importantly pulls back on the number of places a river-runner may hear or smell our OHV neighbors, leaving enough space for all of us to breathe easy and stay friendly.

For years, I have watched increased visitation and appreciation for Labyrinth Canyon and found joy in the many newcomers who experience the profound beauty and peace-of-mind offered. However, I have also witnessed the conflict of interests that has played out in the “little-canyon-that-could.” Each time I float through the towering red-rock cliff faces, I’m struck by not only increased river traffic but also increased noise as the once-quiet, forgotten corridor now has motorists and oars-folk smooshed up against each other for miles.

Labyrinth stands at this awkward precipice where we have enough folks out there enjoying the place to appreciate its value as unfettered wilderness, enough to enshrine it with such fancy sounding titles as wild and scenic, but we haven’t had quite enough time to finish the job and protect the whole canyon.

In some ways, Labyrinth has been an underappreciated stretch of the upper basin of the Colorado River system. This section of the Green River flows calmly before merging with the Colorado River in Cataract Canyon. There aren’t big or technical rapids. It’s mostly flat water, but flat water with outstanding recreational, scenic, ecological and cultural values. And the calm waters make for an unparalleled multi-day river trip for people of all ages and experiences.

Last summer, on that same trip when my mom asked about the protection status of Labyrinth, my toddler was also along for the journey. When we set up camp, he could walk seemingly forever. We spent a long afternoon pitter-pattering down the silty banks of a dynamic sandbar. Every five or six steps, he would stop to pick up something new. The juniper berries would give way to driftwood leading to heron footprints. We followed the footprints until the soft mud turned into dry cracks, abandoned sand waves, coyote paws, fish bones, sumac berries.

There are magic moments that can be found within Labyrinth Canyon if you have enough patience and quietness to find it. The BLM’s management plan for Labyrinth Canyon will determine where off-road vehicle use is allowed for decades to come. We need all people who care about our rivers and wild places to comment on the plan by October 7 and show support for Alternative B. This could be our best chance to truly protect Labyrinth Canyon.

Lauren Wood is a third generation river runner and co-owner of Holiday River Expeditions. She lives in Salt Lake City and seasonally along the banks of Utah rivers.