I get several emails a week and even more notices on facebook asking for money to save Staircase Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments, usually, the emails and facebook posts are close to hysterical but I’m not convinced that the Trump Administration’s reduction of the Monuments is bad. I have very mixed feelings, to say the least. For starters, I want to admit that I am slightly embarrassed and certainly defensive for not being at Code Blue over the reduction so please bear with me while I try to explain. By way of background and to establish my bonafides, I want to say that Escalante is my favorite place and has been well before Bill Clinton established The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in 1996. In a guided meditation years earlier, I was asked to imagine a place that spiritually moves me. The place I was instantly taken to, in my mind’s eye, is a real place, the junction of Hurricane Wash and Coyote Canyon in the Escalante Wilderness. For me, it is a place of almost supernatural beauty and calmness. The beauty comes from the land. It comes from the effect of sparse rain mixed with monsoonal deluges on the eroding edge of an immense plateau. The calm comes from the deep Mormonism that permeates rural Utah (and both Escalante and Bear’s Ears are very much in rural Utah). Up until a couple of years ago, I had been backpacking the canyons in the Escalante and Paria River drainages once or twice a year and I’m still head over heels in love with both. I’ve backpacked from Bears Ears down to the Colorado River and a good portion of Grand Gulch, both in the Bears Ears Monument, and have been entranced by the country and the surprising number of Native American ruins. But, I am an outsider and the country didn’t always feel like it loved me.
Late one night, after coming out of a loop backpack that started down Little Death Hollow, looped down the Escalante River, and up Silver Falls Canyon, we ended up at Boulder Utah – population about 130, then – at about eight o’clock at night, looking for a place to stay. There was a small – small like three rooms small – motel with a lit vacancy sign. We knocked on the door of what looked like the office and was the only place with the light on and we could see they were watching television inside. Nobody answered. So we went over to the window and knocked again. The man got up, walked over, and pulled the shade down. We were stunned, but – and this is the point – so was he. Boulder was the last place in the Continental United States to have its mail delivered by mule – possibly excluding the Havasupai tribal lands in the Grand Canyon – the nearby Henry Mountains were the last place in the lower 48 mapped by the USGS,; the road to Boulder was not paved until 1971. These people moved here to get away from civilization and here it was, banging on their door.
Another story – and hang in here, this is actually going someplace – started when we were driving through Boulder a year or two later while wandering from Escalante to Fruita via lower Capitol Reef National Park. We were thrilled to see a great looking, new place to stay in Boulder, The Boulder Mountain Lodge. The next year we stayed there and we stayed there at least once a year for the next ten years. Attached to the Lodge was an excellent restaurant, Hell’s Backbone Grill, but It didn’t serve booze because the Town of Boulder was dry. A year or so later, we came by and the restaurant had new owners, two Buddhist women, who had bought it after the previous owner, who also owned the Lodge, failed to get a license to serve wine. He had filed a lawsuit against the Town and took it all the way to the Utah Supreme Court. Now, here is the kicker, the Lodge owner, the former restaurant owner, the Town of Boulder suer, a fellow canyon lover, had a bumper sticker that said, “Free Tibet” and, when I talked to him, he was pretty adamant about it. What he couldn’t see was that he was doing the same thing in Boulder Utah that he was accusing the Chinese of doing in Tibet. Sure, the scale is different but both are trying to force a bigger, newer, and probably more vibrant, culture down the throat of an isolated rural area.
Significantly, a couple of years later the new owners got a license to serve wine and beer. They had become part of the community, they bought local food and hired local young people as servers – people that probably would have left town otherwise – they held an annual Ice-cream Social and hosted an annual retreat for a group of Buddhist monks. The Ice-cream Social has become a major event in town and Mormon elders often join the monks in their retreat. I asked one of the owners how they had gotten their license and she told me “I went to the Town Elders and asked for the license when they asked me ‘Why?’, I said ‘Because we will make more money’. They said ‘That’s a good reason, OK'”
To a certain extent, from its start in upper New York State in the 1820s by Joseph Smith, Mormonism can be defined by its conflict with outsiders. The original Mormons were driven out of New York and went to Kirtland Ohio in the early 1830s. Then they were pushed out of Ohio and went to Missouri in 1838 to escape that persecution. There they got into a war with other Missouri settlers and were kicked out of the state by a governor’s Executive Order. After Missouri, Smith took his growing Church to Illinois where they built a new city that soon was bigger than Chicago. While in jail on a dubious charge, Joseph Smith was killed and the Mormons were driven out of Illinois. Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, led a community that had grown to some 60,000 Mormons about 1200 miles due west until they got to the Great Salt Lake. They had found a safe home in the wilderness and the Mormons spread out as far and as fast as they could to settle as much land as possible. This is hard land to settle but the Mormons did it, finding little patches to farm or graze cattle and sheep.
As an aside, the road down to my beloved Coyote Canyon is called the Hole in the Rock Road. The Church sent a group of about 250 men and women on a mission to settle the San Juan River Basin. To save on a 450 mile trip to the nearest ford across the Colorado River and back to the San Juan River, they built a road south from Escalante for 55 miles, through rough desert terrain cut with steep-sided arroyos, before they hit a cliff overlooking the Colorado River 2000 feet below. They blasted a ramp through the rock so that they could lower their wagons by rope to a bench above the river and then the bench below that and below that until they dropped the 2,000 feet to the Colorado. On the Mormon website, the story begins with a subheading: The faith, courage, and sacrifice of the Saints who passed through Hole-in-the-Rock in 1880 stand as an example to all Latter-day Saints of the power available to us when we are on the Lord’s errand. End aside.
The Mormons have been good stewards of this land. They have nursed it with a religious passion, with hard work and their blood. Their roots have grown deep into the red rock. Red rock that, for most of the Mormon history here, was of no interest to outsiders. But then roads got better and people started to hear stories of an almost fabled land of red canyons beyond Zion and Brice. I first heard about Escalante in a quarterly four-page newsletter, The California Explorer, that had a breathlessly poetic description of Coyote Gulch. I had been to Zion and Brice – at the tail end of an unhappy marriage – and even in that state, was enchanted so, in the spring of 1981, I went to the town of Escalante then down the Hole in the Rock Road to Hurricane Wash and into Coyote Gulch for the first time. I was stunned. Ten years later, when I first met Michele, after a shakedown over-nighter in the Yosemite high country, the Escalante Wilderness was the first place we backpacked together. When President Clinton established the Staircase Escalante National Monument, I was thrilled. But, as I learned more about it and thought more about it, my feelings have become mixed.
At 2,938 sq miles, Staircase Escalante National Monument is about one and a half times the size of Delaware. It is composed of three somewhat detached areas, my beloved Escalante River Basin, the upper Paria River Drainage and the Cottonwood Canyon area – BTW, the lower part of that drainage was already protected by the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area – and the Kaiparowits Plateau between them; the Clinton Administration combined the three areas into one National Monument and jammed down it down Utah’s throat. Because of a fear of protestors, the announcement ceremony was even made out of state, at the Grand Canyon Visitors Center, seven hours away by car (Trump’s rescission was in Salt Lake City, still five hours away by car). I don’t want to give the wrong impression here, this was not land taken from anybody, it was already owned by the Federal government and controlled by the BLM – Bureau of Land Management, the Agency that controls most of the land in the west – that was renamed and repurposed as a National Monument. It is still run by the BLM, with a much bigger budget, at first, at least, and higher restrictions on use. Still, this was not a monument that Utah wanted. According to a pro-Monument article in The High Country News: The forces arrayed against conservation in southern Utah were deeply rooted. County commissioners, state elected officials, the entire Utah congressional delegation — all were against the monument from the moment of its creation in 1996. They considered it a usurpation of local power, and they had acted at every chance to attack its legitimacy.
If my opinion were the only one that counted, the whole of Southeastern Utah would be a National Park. It is that beautiful and that sacred. But the people who live in Southeastern Utah also have opinions and while a growing number agree with me, the majority still worry about the Monument’s damage to their way of life. They point out that, while the Escalante City population of 652 in 1980 has grown to 793 in 2014, the Escalante High School has lost 73 students because families who were farmers and ranchers have left. The new proposal, of three smaller Monuments, would still be about 1,560 sq. miles, three quarters the size of Delaware and still much bigger than Yosemite National Park. Huge amounts of land will still have the additional protection a Monument affords but not everything. Much of The Hole in the Rock Road will not be protected for example and, the road is upstream from some of the best canyons in the Escalante Basin. If that area were strip-mined as some of the emails I get suggest, it would be a real disaster; but that is highly unlikely (it is also upstream from the politically powerful Lake Powell). It is more likely that this area would revert to rangeland or get paved making it easier to get into the wild areas, in turn, making them less wild. In between the three new monuments, much of the land falls in a network of Wilderness Study Areas and will stay protected but both the northern edge and southern edge of the old monument will probably be open to hunting and/or grazing. In the eastern part of the old Monument, that backs up to Capitol Reef National Park there are several expired and suspended oil and gas leases and it is possible that they will be revived but this is unlikely. This is a very remote area, 125 miles by rough mountain road to the first town with a population of over 1,000 people and hauling stuff out would be very expensive.
Taking this large, staggeringly beautiful, area and making it three smaller areas is not my ideal, however, behind the hysteria and partisan yelling, I’m inclined to believe that this new monument proposal is very reasonable.