On April 26, 2017 the President signed an executive order directing the Department of the Interior to review the National Monument status of National Monuments created in the last 21 years over 100,000 acres to determine whether they should be revoked or resized, which has never been done before.
Presidents have the ability to create National Monuments under the Antiquities Act, which was enacted in 1906 by a Republican House and Senate to support a Republican President’s desire to protect our public lands. It has been used by presidents of both political parties to designate National Monuments. 32 of the 59 National Parks started as National Monuments or have incorporated National Monuments. This list includes many of the most revered parks, such as Grand Canyon, Acadia, Olympic, Arches, Denali, and Zion. Congress intended for the Antiquities Act to give the president broad authority to enact permanent protections for vast areas of federal land. Within the first year of the act, President Roosevelt set aside 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon.
Before the Grand Canyon was designated a National Monument, there were miners and developers interested in making money off it. Protecting land imposes limitations on how that land can be used, which can lead to conflict and legal battles by those burdened by the new regulations. In the case of the Grand Canyon, legal battles went all the way to the supreme court in 1920, which upheld the National Monument protections. Thanks to President Roosevelt and the Antiquities Act, we can all still enjoy the Grand Canyon, pretty much as it was then (only with way more visitors).
Two of the monuments that are creating much of the current controversy are the first and last Monuments designated in the period that is under review. Both are in Utah, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument. Since we were nearby, we decided to visit these two monuments and experience them for ourselves.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has beautiful cliffs and slot canyons, ruins and rock art, and tens of thousands of fossils, including dinosaur fossils that are 75 million years old. Twenty-one never seen before dinosaurs have been discovered there. Bears Ears National Monument includes land that is sacred to many Native American tribes and an inter-tribal coalition fought for the establishment of the National Monument. There are nearly 100,000 cultural and archeological sites. Both lands are surely worth protecting.
Even from across the Colorado River in Arizona, we could see Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, and could appreciate its beauty. We talked to a ranger at the Glen Canyon Dam visitor center, and decided to take a scenic drive through the National Monument to get a closer look.
We stopped at the Big Water Visitor Center when we got into the National Monument, and saw the dinosaur exhibits. We watched the informational video, and learned about the monument’s amazing dinosaur fossils and that it is a “living laboratory” with many species of endemic bees. It highlighted the many beautiful cliffs and slot canyons, and interviewed tribal leaders about the significance of the land and their desire to keep it protected.
Then… we talked to the visitor center staff (I don’t know if they were employees or volunteers). At first they were excited to tell us about the hiking opportunities and what Grand Staircase-Escalante has to offer. Then Brian asked about the area’s status as a National Monument, and that’s when things got weird. Rather than talking about how great the area is, they were telling us that the Antiquities Act is only supposed to protect what is necessary, and some parts of the monument aren’t necessary. Well, what parts are those? Oh, they don’t know. We asked if drilling/mining for natural resources could be part of the motivation for not supporting the National Monument status, and they said “oh no”. But later, they said that it isn’t fair to protect land that contains natural resources that could be used by the state of Utah. They were inconsistent in their reasoning, but it was really surprising to hear people who work at a national monument not support it. Also, they used the words “conservationist” and “environmentalist” as insults. This has been a National Monument for 20 years, and there are people who still don’t support it.
After that strange experience we went on our scenic drive on Cottonwood Drive to Grosvenor Arch, which is a sandstone double arch. The drive was beautiful. We passed layered badlands that looked like the painted desert at Petrified Forest National Park, and pink mountains and canyons. When we got to the arch, we walked over to it to get a good view.
We passed a couple people talking about the National Monument status, saying that the ranchers have nowhere to graze their cattle, and the review will determine whether there is land that could be used for cattle grazing. However, we saw plenty of cattle grazing in the National Monument, and there is a large amount of misinformation out there. Ranchers have more limitations, but it is not true that the land has been taken away. Protecting land can cause burdens, but instead of removing protections we need to find ways to compromise and work together. I know there are many interested parties with different ideas about how to use or not use the land, but land wouldn’t need to be protected if there was nothing to protect it from.
We visited Bears Ears National Monument on our way from Arizona to Colorado. We only had half a day to spend, so we planned a hike, and went to the Kane Gulch Ranger Station. Bears Ears has only been a National Monument since December 28, 2016, about 4 months. They weren’t set up for it yet. They didn’t even have maps!
They did tell us about good hikes in the monument though, and seemed more supportive of the National Monument status than the people we encountered at Grand Staircase-Escalante. They told us that they were volunteers and didn’t speak for anyone but themselves. One kept saying “if it sticks” everytime he talked about the National Monument. We asked if they knew why there was opposition to Bears Ears becoming a monument, and they said “supposed federal overreach” even though all the land was federal land prior to the monument status. No land was taken from private owners. There is a uranium mine within the area that was even excluded from the monument boundaries.
We went to the south fork of Mule Canyon to hike to the “House on Fire” ruins. The canyon itself was beautiful. We saw several people headed to the ruins, I think it is one of the more popular areas in the monument. It smelled so fresh in the canyon, it reminded me of zucchini bread!
We got to the House on Fire ruins after about a mile of hiking, and they were amazing! It really does look like there are flames above the ancient Anasazi cliff dwellings. We joined the other 6-7 people taking photos for a bit, then continued into the canyon.
There are several other ruins, but we didn’t know exactly where to look. We hiked about a mile further, and then ran into another couple who gave us some advice on where to look. We looked everywhere and climbed onto and over rocks, and finally, just when we were about to give up, we found another ruin.
Reasonable people can disagree on how best to use, protect, or enjoy our natural areas, but these areas that are full of fossils, artifacts, ruins, beautiful landscapes and biodiversity need to be protected from vandalism and misuse as well as mining and drilling and development. We witnessed first hand the power of the protection that comes with a National Monument or National Park designation. When we visited Saguaro National Park, we stayed in the nearby National Forest. Even though this land is federal land as well, the Saguaro cactuses didn’t appear nearly as healthy as those in the Park’s much more pristine cactus forests. There were shell casings and litter everywhere.
When we visited Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears, we saw graffiti carved into the rocks at Grand Staircase-Escalante, and a sign full of bullet holes in Bears Ears. These lands need to be protected. Some people are upset that National Monuments tend to curtail camping, off-roading, shooting, and some other types of recreation, but if those activities are hurting the land, there are other places to do them.
In the last seven months we have been lucky enough to visit ten national parks and five national monuments. Our public lands and parks are so impressive and valuable, and need to be protected for everyone to enjoy. I don’t like to talk politics, because everything is so polarized, and honestly, it can be too painful. Protecting the environment shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
We really enjoyed our short time at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument, and we look forward to returning. I hope, when we do, these areas are still protected as National Monuments.
If you care about this issue, here are some ways you can express your opinions:
- The direct number for the Department of the Interior’s Office of the Secretary is (202) 208-7351
- According to the Department of the Interior Press Release, “Comments may be submitted online after May 12 at http://www.regulations.gov by entering “DOI-2017-0002” in the Search bar and clicking “Search,” or by mail to Monument Review, MS-1530, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240.”
- Contact your elected representative in the House and Senate