Though much environmental legislation has been stymied by a bitterly bipartisan Congress, the president’s ace in the hole is the Antiquities Act, signed into law in 1906 by my hero, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt.
The Antiquities Act, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, reserves executive powers for the president to set aside, from the public domain, lands of unique historical, scientific, natural or cultural significance. Three proposals in southern Utah fit those criteria. Obama has used the act to create new national monuments in Virginia and California. Will he do so in Utah? Conservationists hope so, but local Utahns are not as supportive.
Westerners worry that national monument status will only increase visitation, and more tourists will mar delicate landscapes. Some folks prefer plain old vanilla BLM lands without any special designation, but that leaves a large window open for oil and gas drilling, potential mining and, inevitably, more roads.
For years the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has sought a huge Redrock Wilderness Act to permanently protect 9.5 million acres of southern Utah as wilderness. This bold and comprehensive legislation has gone nowhere. A scaled-down version is the Greater Canyonlands National Monument proposal to set aside lands adjacent to Canyonlands National Park south and west of Moab. This is a good idea, especially with oil and gas wells now close to Island in the Sky and other scenic vistas.
Greater Canyonlands would provide further protection for Indian Creek, Bridger Jack Mesa, Lockhart Basin, Labyrinth Canyon, Dark Canyon, White Canyon and 300 miles of major rivers. This is “a campaign to protect the heart of Utah’s Redrock Country” and “one of the largest and most magnificent wild landscapes in the lower 48 states – an icon of our western heritage.” But it’s not the only proposal and few locals have supported it.
Indeed, the fight for landscape preservation in southern Utah mostly takes place in San Juan County, whose biggest towns are Blanding and Monticello. This is a huge county with only two stoplights. One is a four-way stop and one light just blinks. More than 92 percent of the county is federal, state or tribal land, and the rest is agricultural, settled by Mormon pioneers. The Lands Council in San Juan County prefers a congressional solution for a national conservation area, not a national monument imposed by the White House.
In a county of almost 8,000 square miles, the population is less than 15,000 people. Half are Native Americans, including members of the Navajo Nation who live near Montezuma Creek, Aneth and south of the San Juan River. Navajos have historic roots in the area with one of their chiefs, Manuelito, born near the Bears Ears close to Elk Ridge. The White Mesa Utes have a reservation and kinship ties to Ute Mountain Utes.
A Dine Bikeyah proposal for Cedar Mesa, south of the Greater Canyonlands proposal and closer to Bluff, Utah, would include Navajo co-management. In a fall 2014 San Juan County Public Land survey, this concept had 300 comments, a petition with 246 signatures and three supportive resolutions from the Navajo Utah Commission, the Navajo Mountain Chapter and the Oljato Chapter. Dine Bikeyah stretches from the San Juan River west to Lake Powell including Comb Ridge and Grand Gulch and some of the most significant ancestral Puebloan sites in the Southwest.
“It has been 800 years since those who built Cedar Mesa’s famous dwellings left the area, but most of the change there has come in the last few decades,” says Brian O’Donnell in the Grand Canyon Trust’s Colorado Plateau Advocate.
He adds: “The greater Cedar Mesa region is not a destination to check off on a backpacker’s bucket list, but rather the sacred home for many cultures. Despite their deep connection to the land, Native Americans have been largely left out of land planning and management decisions.”
That’s about to change, especially with a new female Navajo county commissioner for San Juan County.
A third proposal has been put forth by Friends of Cedar Mesa, formed in 2012, which advocates for “regional discussion about protecting public lands in Southeast Utah” and correctly notes that even though there are Navajo and Ute claims to the redrock landscape it is indisputably a Hopi homeland because Hopis are the direct descendants of the ancestral Puebloans.
Hopis urge creation of a national conservation area (NCA), by congressional vote, or a national monument, designated by President Obama. Last year, the All Pueblo Council representing 20 Pueblo Nations passed a resolution “calling for permanent protection of cultural resources and sacred sites on public land in the greater Cedar Mesa area.”
The Friends of Cedar Mesa proposal embraces all of Cedar Mesa, Butler Wash, Comb Ridge, Grand Gulch and the canyons of Slickhorn, Bullett, John’s, Mule, Fish, Owl, McCloyd, Road, Lime and Shieks as well as some of the most difficult to access and stunning cliff dwellings to be found anywhere.
A new NCA or a national monument in southern Utah would place the BLM lands into the National Landscape Conservation System, but if such a designation protected the landscape, it might limit public access. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument near Cortez, part of the NLCS, is a case in point.
With their management plan, BLM staff members closed the bottom of East Rock Creek to public access and prohibited off-trail use in Sand Canyon. Public land has been closed to the public ostensibly to protect archaeological resources. This is in direct opposition to the original idea that Canyons of the Ancients would be an “open museum.” I know because I have tried for years to get a permit to hike the floor of East Rock Creek, which I once did faithfully in fall and spring. Now, only archaeologists with federal permits can walk the canyon’s bottom and revel in its rich, tangible prehistory.
I am deeply disappointed. That’s not what locals were promised 15 years ago when President Bill Clinton proclaimed Canyons of the Ancients as a new national monument. I fear the same thing could happen in southern Utah. I worry that public access, even on foot, might be restricted.
“A national conservation area would probably not pass Congress, so a presidentially declared national monument may be our only hope. But there should be no access restrictions for hikers,” argues former BLM ranger Lynell Schalk. “Areas should not be closed to the public. That’s the potential downside of monuments.”
Then there’s the BLM staffing problem. Currently, the Monticello, Utah, office of the BLM manages 2½ million acres with less than a dozen staff members and only one law-enforcement ranger. All of the proposals call for protection and cite irreplaceable archaeological resources as justification, but staffing is skeletal at best.
“What Cedar Mesa needs are more law-enforcement rangers,” Schalk says. “We have one ranger for over 2 million acres. Creating a national monument does not guarantee protection.”
The environmental consequences of illegal woodcutting by Native residents must also be addressed. Spur roads are created. Trees are cut down and erosion increases on Cedar Mesa with its fragile soils.
Will President Obama proclaim a new national monument in southern Utah? If he does, will the management plan provide for landscape and environmental protection yet also guarantee public access? I’d like to take him hiking.
I’d like to show President Obama Moon House on an autumn afternoon and the Citadel at sunset. Change is coming to the redrock canyons of southern Utah. Let’s hope a century from now Americans will say that we saved the past for the future yet kept alive a sense of personal discovery for quiet users to walk deep canyons as the Anasazi did.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.