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12/06/2017 7:04 am  #1

At Three Nat Monuments, Quiet Trails and Questions About the Future

At Three National Monuments, Quiet Trails and Questions About the Future

This week President Trump sharply reduced the size of two monuments; plans for many others are unclear. What are these places like for visitors? We explored a few.

Dec. 6, 2017
Scrambling on the Sandstone at Grand Staircase

By Stephen Nash
Jay and I wondered what the climb back out would be like as we made our way down a wide, smooth, but radically tilted carapace of sandstone toward Upper Calf Creek Falls. This was a “trail,” visible mostly as an imaginary line between rock cairns.

We had to brace ourselves against the steep pitch, mind the loose grit underfoot and take care not to be distracted: The domes and swales of bright vanilla rock, a faint scatter of distant pines and junipers, a dark weight of azure sky. The oceanic expanses of sandstone — known locally as “slickrock”— are common in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  For two decades, monument status has protected this mostly uninhabited high-desert region where ancestral Native American rock art and ruins are on view, backcountry hiking is accelerating in popularity, kayakers ply the Escalante River, rock climbers ascend towers and canyon walls, and the fossils of newly discovered species of dinosaurs are unearthed every few years.

The geology is durable, but national monuments may no longer be. President Donald Trump appeared in Salt Lake City on Monday to proclaim that he will cut this one to half its current size, opening the other half to mining, drilling, motorized recreation and various industrial uses. An adjacent national monument, the 2,000-square-mile Bears Ears, will shrink by 85 percent.

A long list of  Republican and Democratic presidents have created national monuments under the authority of the century-old Antiquities Act. Grand Staircase-Escalante was declared by Bill Clinton in 1996, Bears Ears by Barack Obama in 2016. According to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, “There is no doubt that President Trump has the authority to review and consider recommendations to modify or add a monument.”

His opponents say no such authority exists. “We intend to sue the president immediately in federal court over these unlawful acts” Steve Bloch, legal director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said, just as the president arrived. S.U.W.A. will join several plaintiffs that include the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society, Earthjustice and other groups, he said.

"The Antiquities Act does not provide authority to revoke or modify national monuments once they’ve been created,” Mr. Bloch said, adding that “we’ll be in a position to move very quickly to have those actions declared unlawful.”

One section of Grand Staircase-Escalante is a high step on this “grand staircase” of escalating cliff walls and terraces that begins at the Grand Canyon, about 100 miles south of here, each exposed stratum higher and geologically younger than the last.  Redrawing the  monument’s boundaries will open some of the massive coal deposits on the Kaiparowits Plateau, south of where we’re hiking, to mining.   

In scale as well as beauty, Grand Staircase-Escalante is more than a little overwhelming. As of last month, it was the largest of the land-based national monuments, a 2,900-square-mile rough polygon, about the size of Delaware.  On paved roads, it took two hours to drive from one corner of the monument to the other, but they are very few. Some of the dirt roads are well maintained, but navigating most of the monument requires high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Those dirt roads are always remote, and often forbidding. Flash floods are common. Cellphone service is restricted to about 10 percent of the monument. In high season, Bureau of Land Management ranger patrols have to pull one stranded car a day out of trouble and they have to mount one full-scale search-and-rescue effort a week, on average.

Visitor services like those are “chronically underfunded and therefore understaffed,” I was told by Kevin Miller,  a B.L.M. ecologist who has worked at the monument. Though the number of visitors to the monument is climbing, budgets are declining further, he said. A stop at one of the visitor centers for guidance on road conditions is essential.

This was the last area of the continental United States to be mapped, Mr. Miller told me. Trailheads may be signed, but the trails themselves usually aren’t. They are not maintained, and often they aren’t on maps, either. “The visitor experience is intentionally different from what people expect at a national park,” he said. “The Grand Staircase is really a wild place. It’s easy to get in trouble, if you’re not prepared.”

We stayed out of trouble during our visit, though the climb back up this route generated plenty of sweat. I was here to hike with my college-age great-nephew on a trip through southern Utah. A day exploring the flanks and waterfalls of this gorge, and the trailless crags above them, was a fine introduction. The extreme temperatures of winter and summer keep many visitors — estimated at more than 870,000 a year  — away, but spring and fall weather are usually welcoming.

Later, I inquired at the office of Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, who had urged Mr. Trump to rescind or cut back the monuments. “To this day, the Grand Staircase proclamation remains among the most flagrant abuses of presidential power I have ever seen,” he responded.  It is “suffocating economic development and uprooting the lives of thousands of Utahns who relied on the region’s resources for their very survival.”

The senator’s analysis puzzles Suzanne Catlett. She is president of the Escalante-Boulder Chamber of Commerce, and the owner of a local restaurant, Nemo’s Drive-Thru. The economies of those two hamlets — the gateways to the monument — have been prospering on the tourism they draw, she said.

Before its creation, Escalante was a sleepy ranch supply center with a failing sawmill. The growing number of visitors now supports businesses that provide food and lodging, guide and expedition services, camping supplies and an annual art festival. Fifty-one of the Chamber’s 52 members have declared their opposition to any changes in the monument’s boundaries, she told me.

"For an administration that’s supposed to care about business and economics, this does not make sense,” she said. She said she worries that if the Trump plans succeed, industrialization of the landscape will undermine tourism. And, she said, “It opens up the ability to mess with the monuments every four years, or based on a political environment, and that is no way to build an economy.”

The next day we headed southeast from the town of Escalante; with a population of 800, it’s the largest on the monument.  A turnoff along a few miles of sandy, hummocky road brought us to a hike along Harris Wash. Maps indicate that its lower reaches are among those sections erased when half of the national monument disappeared this week.

The wash follows a canyon whose walls of striped pink sandstone become higher and narrower as you trek. They have been carved into soap-smooth, undulant contours by eons of grinding floodwater.  Byways called slot canyons beckon to the casual explorer. Some narrow down to mere cracks, which you can try to squeeze through at your hazard.

The first couple of miles of the hike were remarkable, too, for the pungent, pervasive odor of cattle dung. Grazing is allowed on many national monuments and other public lands, even in officially designated wilderness areas. The number varies, but officials estimate that there are about 6,000 private cattle on leased allotments through most of Grand Staircase — Escalante.

The cows have been kept away from some streams on the monument, where they naturally congregate in this arid environment. But they are still allowed at Harris Wash, despite damage to stream banks, fouled waters, depleted natural vegetation, competition with wildlife and this canyon’s popularity as a hiking destination.

Jay and I were reminded, on this last day of our visit, that the continued presence of cattle here is part of the longstanding national contention over public lands management.  And that for travelers to national parks, forests and monuments, the natural landscape has quickly merged with the political one.

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

12/06/2017 9:36 am  #2

Re: At Three Nat Monuments, Quiet Trails and Questions About the Future

Is there anything that Trump doesn't want to destroy concerning nature and our environment in favor of business ??? 

"Do not confuse motion and progress, A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress"

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