When Bates Wilson arrived with his family in southern Utah to be the superintendent of the Arches and Natural Bridges national monuments in 1949, the red rock area between the two hadn’t been completely mapped.
“Bates and his son pored over maps,” said Jen Jackson Quintano, author of Wilson’s biography “Blow Sand in His Soul: Bates Wilson the Heart of Canyonlands.” “They found knowledgeable people.”
And in the process of exploring "the land in between," “Bates fell in love with the area,” Quintano said in an interview with the Deseret News.
That area is now Canyonlands National Park, and it was created 50 years ago with a final signature from President Lyndon B. Johnson on Sept. 12, 1964.
“Bates Wilson was known as the father of the Canyonlands,” Quintano said. Wilson was the Canyonlands National Park’s first superintendent and saw the park through all of the phases of its creation.
Quintano shares Wilson’s story as he did his best with what resources he had at what was then Arches National Monument (it was redesignated as a park in the early 1970s) and Natural Bridges National Monument — especially as tourism increased through the 1950s and early ’60s — explored the Needles and other areas in the Canyonlands and tried to reach out to all groups involved, from mining businesses to ranchers to the locals. He presented slideshows to local groups to help share the potential of the area.
“He wanted the local community to be in support of (a national park),” she said.
Wilson had a brand of “Dutch-oven diplomacy,” Quintano said. “He had a sense that if he could generate an experience in the back country, it would make (the area) come alive.”
Many came on these explorations, including U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, state and national representatives and senators, others from the parks department and filmmakers.
“He was the right man at the right place at the right time,” Quintano said.
For the biography, Quintano spent days researching in the National Park Service archives in Moab, Utah, looking through memos and other paperwork from Wilson’s tenure.
“There were gems that would come out,” said Quintano, who was living near Moab at the time. “It was just supervisor reports. There was paperwork that showed his personality.”
Among it were a certificate that gave him life membership in the “Ancient Order of the Geeks” and the photo of Buzz Aldrin that Wilson kept on his desk.
Quintano also collaborated with Wilson’s children, three from his first marriage and two stepdaughters from his second, for photos, experiences and memories.
“Blow Sand in His Soul” includes many photos of Wilson, reproductions of notes and relevant memos along with a few inset boxes to highlight specific experiences or people.
One of these boxes shares some of the challenges of operating the two monuments — from cattle eating the registration papers, pulling vehicles out of washed-out muddy roads and creating access for “the man with the pink Cadillac.”
Quintano doesn’t shy away from some of the less-than-stellar parts of Wilson’s colorful character as she shares what the park deemed a “highly irregular” way of doing things and also shares some of his family’s challenges and memories of an absent father as he spent long days at the monuments and advocating for the Canyonlands.
The book has some occasional light swearing and no violence or sexual content.
Events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the park are scheduled throughout the weekend. See canyonlands50.org for events put on by the Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks, one of the groups that commissioned the late Wilson’s biography.
If you go ...
Canyonlands National Parks 50th anniversary events
What: Canyonlands National Park community, employee, alumni reception
When: Thursday, Sept. 11, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.; Friday, Sept. 12, 9 a.m. to noon
Where: Grand Center, 182 N. 500 West, Moab
What: Historic Canyonlands Film Festival
When: Thursday, Sept. 11, and Saturday, Sept, 13, 7-9 p.m.; doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Star Hall, 159 E. Center Street, Moab
Note: Admission is free with donations to the Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks appreciated
What: 50th anniversary commemoration ceremony and dinner, speaker Douglas Brinkley
When: Friday, Sept. 12, 3-8 p.m.
Where: Needles District, Canyonlands National Park
Note: RSVP required; see canyonlands50.org
What: Community Picnic in the Park
When: Saturday, Sept. 13, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Where: Old City Park, Moab (intersection of Old City Park Road and Murphy Lane)
Note: Food available by donation to the Lion’s Club or bring your own
What: Canyonlands Art Contest reception and awards
When: Saturday, Sept. 13, 6-9 p.m.
Where: Moab Arts and Recreation Center, 111 E. 100 North, Moab
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