Bears Ears National Monument: A Casualty of Modern Politics
On a cold evening in November 2012 Aaron Scott and I hung a right off Utah’s Highway 191 towards the south entrance of Canyonlands National Park. After weaving around some indifferent cattle we descended into a canyon as the twilight gave way to night. We’d been in the truck for most of the last 18 hours, but our stoke rose every time we caught a glimpse of rust colored boulders in the headlights. I could see that tall walls were blocking out the stars all around us, but couldn’t make out any details. We turned off the pavement and the old Toyota bounced us along a washboard gravel road and through a shallow creek before entering a large grove of old, gnarled cottonwoods. We pulled into an opening in the trees and brush where a few friends had already been camping for the last week, and cheersed our already open beers to a successful long drive. It was my first visit to the famed (among climbers, anyway) Indian Creek.
The next morning my mind was blown when I finally saw our surroundings. Most of the popular climbing areas that I’d been to have maybe a couple of big, popular main walls, and a bunch of smaller walls scattered around, hidden by forests. Now I found myself camped in a place where 200-400 foot tall walls went on for miles in all directions down canyons and side canyons. Perfect, straight up and down cracks seemed to be lined up a few feet apart from each other on most of the walls. Over breakfast burritos and coffee we discussed our options with our friends Phil and Mike. After a long session of scrutinizing the guidebook, Phil summed it up for us: “It doesn’t matter where we go. Every zone will have maybe one 5.9, a few 5.10s, and some 5.11s and 5.12s. And they’re all good.”
The weeks that followed were an idyllic version of what the climbing life is supposed to be. The notoriously steep and sustained routes schooled us in the art of crack climbing. They kicked our asses. Our hands were covered in open sores by the middle of the second day, so we decided to rest every third day. Our down time was spent cooking good food, drinking beer, and telling stories around a campfire that seemed to have more people around it every night. We made new friends and ran into old ones. We drove down rough desert roads to see where they led, and climbed the talus slopes to look at climbs that were way too hard for us.
Since 2012 I’ve taken five trips down to the desert of southeast Utah to climb, bike, watch sunsets, look at the stars, and just plain wander. I, and countless others, have found a kind of freedom there that to this day I’ve found nowhere else. This is thanks to the vast swaths of public land managed (often loosely) by the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, and Park Service. Natural arches, mud towers, petrified forests and sand dunes, rivers, high mountains dotted with pine and aspen groves, and trail-less canyons and washes lined with golden leafed cottonwoods where you might just stumble across thousand year old Native American ruins complete with pottery shards and pictographs.
Much of this area had very little oversight or protection until Barack Obama established Bears Ears National Monument in December 2016 after years of planning by land managers, conservation groups, and tribes. Except for a small portion that was owned by land trusts and conservation groups, the area was already public land. The biggest change was that by designating it a national monument, recreation and conservation would take priority over commercial interests. Existing mineral leases and cattle grazing licenses would still be honored, but no new leases would be allowed. The canyons, the ruins, the deserts, and forests would remain as oases of peace and solitude for generations to come. Or so we thought...
Soon after Donald Trump was elected there were murmurs about the possibility of his administration shrinking Bears Ears, along with many other national monuments. As most anyone who is still reading this probably knows, on December 4th he did just that. The size of Bears Ears has been reduced by 85%. The main climbing areas in Indian Creek now make up the Indian Creek National Monument, and some of the archaeologically significant sites to the south are now part of the Shash Jaa National Monument. He also reduced the size of the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by about one half. I’ve only driven through that area, so I don’t know enough to say much about it.
There are a lot of ins and outs here, but after doing a lot of reading about what this all means, I’d say that it comes down to plain old political pandering. This might sound simplistic, but few have anything to gain aside from an ego boost here. Trump and the Utah state politicians who supported this needed a win and a distraction in order to look good to their base. They have repeatedly called Obama’s formation of the monument a federal government land grab that locks the public out of their land. They’ve insinuated that not even recreation was allowed. “With the action I’m taking today, we will not only give back your voice over the use of this land, we will also restore your access and your enjoyment,” Trump said on Monday. Let’s look at some other quotes from an article published by the Salt Lake Tribune.
“'I’ve heard this argument about Bears Ears’ oil and gas; that’s a nefarious argument,' he [Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior] said. 'There are no oil and gas resources that anyone has reported in Bears Ears. It really is about multiple use and multiple use is grazing, timber management, recreation, being able to use in some places four-wheel drives.'"
Grazing was still allowed in the monument, as was the management of what little timber there is in the area. There were regulations, but there has been for decades, and there still will be going forward. Recreation was not in jeopardy, and there are plenty of wild roads/paths that you can drive on with a four-wheel drive vehicle. I know this for a fact. I was there a few weeks ago, and I put my truck in four-wheel drive on my way out to some good ol’ fashion recreation.
"'The families and communities of Utah know and love this land the best, and you know the best how to take care of your land,' he [Trump] said."
This was not state or county land. It never has been. “There’s not one square inch of federal land that doesn’t remain under federal control,” Zinke said. The people of Utah don’t own it any more than you or I do. I live in Washington, and I don’t claim special rights to Mount Rainier, or even the Forest Service land behind my house. It’s federal land. Public land. It belongs to all of us.
Photo: The Dugout Ranch, owned by The Nature Conservancy, sits in the center of Indian Creek.
In the public comment period leading up to this decision 1.3 million comments were submitted and 99.2% of the comments opposed the reduction of national monuments. In the summary of Secretary Zinke’s report on the review of national monuments designated since 1996 he wrote the following: “Comments received were overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments and demonstrated a well orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations. Opponents of monuments primarily supported rescinding or modifying the existing monuments to protect traditional multiple use, and those most concerned were often local residents associated with industries such as grazing, timber production, mining, hunting and fishing, and motorized recreation.” The opponents mentioned make up .8% of respondents, and the only one of the listed concerns that was actually affected by the monument was mining (primarily Uranium).
In 2015, representatives from the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute tribes formed the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which played a major role in getting the monument designated. Their goal was to take some responsibility for the management and protection of their ancestral lands, in part since the theft and destruction of archaeological sites and artifacts has been such a problem over the years. I’d say that they are the biggest losers in all of this.
This isn’t over, for better or for worse. The Trump administration is looking at shrinking multiple other national monuments. Conservation NGOs, local tribes, and private corporations are planning lawsuits. This is year one. It’s going to be a long three (or seven) more years. This may not seem like a major issue. Mines in the area have been mostly tapped out, and there aren't many trees worth cutting. But our population is growing, and let's face it: we're pretty good at messing up the environment. Some organized body needs to be watching after these amazing places that we have, or they aren't going to last. I've seen it happen in other countries, as well as on underfunded public land in this country. There are times when you’ve got to stand for what you believe in, and I believe in that desert. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
12/11/17 Update: It sounds like mining has more to do with this than I originally thought. Grand Staircase-Escalante has coal underneath it, and according to the Washington Post, it sounds like the Uranium in Bears Ears might have been a bigger deal than I originally thought.