Slickrock and slot canyons in a precarious monument
By Stephen Nash, for The New York Times (adapted)…
Jay and I, we kind of 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 against the steep pitch, mind the loose grit underfoot, and take care not to be distracted much: 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 here along Calf Creek, 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. Visitation has trended sharply upward each season on these federal public lands, in which we all share ownership.
The geology is durable, but national monuments may no longer be. President Donald Trump arrived in Salt Lake City 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.
Litigation to halt those plans has been promised by several groups of opponents, however. An engaging topic for family discussion en route to rural Utah, then: will these public resources continue to be preserved for their scientific, natural, and cultural value as national monuments, or will major chunks be leased out for industrial development, and as part of our national fossil-fuel-based energy portfolio?
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. SUWA will join several plaintiffs that include the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Wilderness Society, Earthjustice and other groups, he said.
A similar challenge has been promised by a coalition of five Native American tribes and their legal allies who will sue to prevent the near-elimination of Bears Ears, according to staff attorney Matthew Campbell of the Native American Rights Fund. Tribal governments played a large role in the creation of the Bears Ears monument.
“The Antiquities Act does not provide authority to revoke or modify national monuments once they’ve been created,” he said, adding that “we’ll be in a position to move very quickly to have those actions declared unlawful.” Other groups have said they will file their own lawsuits to protect the two monuments.
One section of Grand Staircase-Escalante is a high step on the namesake “grand staircase” of escalating cliffwalls and terraces that begins at Grand Canyon, about a hundred 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, the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument is more than a little overwhelming. As of a day or so ago, 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 ten 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 BLM 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 U.S. to be mapped, 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 Jason 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 Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, one of those who 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. The economies of those two hamlets — the gateways to the monument — have been prospering on the tourism it draws, she said.
Prior to its creation, Escalante was a sleepy ranch supply center with a failing sawmill. The growing tide 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 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 long-standing 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.
Stephen Nash is the author of the book “Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands Versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change,” published in September by the University of California Press.