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The PBS series "Nova" tackles 4 billion years of a continent's history — and Utah is one of the stars.

The three-part "Making North America" looks at how the continent was formed — volcanic eruptions, glaciers, floods and the occasional comet strike. Host Kirk Johnson traveled to 17 states, Canada and the Bahamas.

"It is such a rich topic," he said. "You could have kept going for weeks and months, but we had to stop sometime."

The series chronicles the life of North America.

"A continent, like a person, has a biography," Johnson said. "And North America really has a three-part story. There's the core in the middle, which is very old. The East Coast was shaped by repeated collisions. And then more recently, the West Coast is a big train wreck."

He travels to familiar sites like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park and to less familiar sites like Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It's an area few people — even Utahns — have ever visited because it's so remote.

"It's the last great dinosaur paradise in North America," said Johnson, a geologist/paleontologist who is director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. "It's accessible only by helicopter, and when we flew in to it, the guy had laid out two complete dinosaur skeletons and a bunch of gigantic fossil tortoises they just discovered that week. It is a discovery place that is just phenomenal."

The Grand Staircase-Escalante remains a flash point in Utah — both Republicans and Democrats protested when President Bill Clinton designated the national monument in 1996. In June, the Garfield County Commission declared a "state of emergency," claiming restrictive federal land-management policies endanger southern Utah and blaming the monument for declines in jobs, population and school enrollment.

"That's a canard," said Johnson. "These are globally unique landscapes with tremendous science to be done. This ongoing effort to protect and preserve these really incredible, remote landscapes is tremendously important."

The area figures prominently in "Nova," which centers on three questions: How was the continent built? How did life evolve here? And how has the continent shaped us?

Johnson is a big proponent of keeping Grand Staircase-Escalante unspoiled.

"That is a roadless area of incredible beauty and incredible untapped scientific resources," he said. "And before they set it aside, they were planning to put a big coal mine in there and rip it open."

Clinton's designation of the area as a national monument ended plans for a coal mine on the Kaiparowits Plateau.

"We need coal, but this is one of the few vast, unroaded spots left in the lower 48 and it's never been studied," Johnson said.

Twitter: @ScottDPierce —


The three-part, three-hour "Nova" series "Making North America" airs on consecutive Wednesdays — Nov. 4, 11 and 18 — at 8 p.m. on PBS/Ch. 7.