Public Lands

On December 4, President Trump announced at the Utah State Capitol that he was going to substantially reduce the size of three national monuments: Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Oregon Cascade-Siskiyou. He based this action on a host of perceived slights to American democracy, with the basic premise being that the monuments represent “an egregious use of government power” and they prohibit people living near the monuments from taking advantage of economic potential in terms of oil, gas, and mining exploration. As he spoke, thousands of people stood outside the capitol protesting the reduction, while environmental groups gathered around the country to plan their responses. Similarly, some groups in places like Blanding, Utah–just outside of Bears Ears National Monument–stood with signs supporting the administration’s reduction. This controversy is only the latest in over a century of debate about how best to make use of American public lands, but it has the potential to have some of the farthest-reaching consequences of any legal battle ever fought on the issue.

Public lands are a tremendous part of America’s character. According to the Wilderness Society: “America’s federal public lands… cover almost a million square miles, or 618 million acres, more than 25% of the U.S. land base.” The concept of protecting public lands began in earnest in 1872 with the protection of Yellowstone as “a great national park or pleasure-ground.”

Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. President from 1901 to 1909, and Gifford Pinchot, the U.S. Forest Service’s first Chief, are often given the most credit for giving form to the conservation movement. They incubated an idea that would be carefully considered and developed over the next century: some landscapes must be withheld from profit-driven development. They wanted to trade instancy for longevity. Pinchot’s primary goal was to conserve forest resources so they could be efficiently put to human use. Specifically, he wanted to prevent Americans from deforesting the whole continent because he believed he could use scientific principles to make forest resources last for generations. This legacy is still a primary driver of public-lands policy, as anyone can read on the welcome signs upon entering a national forest: “Welcome to your national forest, land of many uses.”

Eventually this led to the distinction between conservation and preservation. The National Park Service defines the difference as thus: “…conservation seeks the proper use of nature, while preservation seeks protection of nature from use.” Pinchot was a staunch conservationist, which meant he was motivated by how to make the best use of wild lands. He is the reason that Roosevelt transferred the U.S. Forest Service from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture. Pinchot saw forests as a resource to be managed and controlled for the human use. Later on, the preservationists countered that the land should be protected simply so that it can exist untouched. They believe some natural places must remain intact as a way to sustain the complex web of ecosystems that supports all life on earth. This sentiment reached a peak in 1964 with the Wilderness Act, which set aside land as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

It’s important to understand that wilderness areas–as defined by the 1964 act–can only be created by an act of the United States Congress. A large part of the debate about Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments is that they were created through the use of the Antiquities Act (by Presidents Clinton and Obama respectively), which is a Roosevelt-era executive motion that grants presidents the power to create national monuments without approval from either of the two other branches of government. It’s not as simple as the president drawing some lines on a map and calling it a monument; he or she needs to have a plan vetted through several bureaucratic steps that ensure that monuments meet the requirements of the Antiquities Act. At the end of 2016, then-President Obama actually reduced the size of the proposal he was given by a substantial amount in order to comply with the requirement that monuments “shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” Yet once the proposal is on the president’s desk, he can act overnight. The apparent caprice of this action grieves opponents deeply.

It’s worth understanding that monuments cost the government money. Even after eight years of a Democratic president trying to support social systems like the National Park Service, which administers most national monuments (though not Grand Staircase, which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management), that organization is still overworked and underfunded. New proposed tax cuts have the potential to greatly exacerbate this issue. Wilderness areas cost only a fraction of the money as monuments to maintain. Some may counter that they cost money in terms of the loss of extraction profits and taxes, but those of that mindset should understand that Bears Ears National Monument allows existing grazing and even some oil and gas leases to remain in place. Grand Staircase preserved existing grazing permits as well. They simply prohibit further such development. And many environmental groups and outdoor brands claim the economic benefits of tourism (including hunting, fishing, and running) to monuments like Bears Ears are much larger and far more sustainable than oil and gas and mining. According to the Durango Telegraph:

“…more than 98 percent of the record-breaking 2.7 million public comments received during the Interior’s comment period expressed support for maintaining or expanding monuments. Patagonia also referred to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2017 report that found outdoor recreation contributes 7.6 million jobs and $887 billion annually [to the U.S. economy], far outpacing the jobs and spending generated by oil and gas. The company also cited Wilderness Society data that 90 percent of U.S. public lands are open to oil and gas leasing and development while only 10 percent are protected for recreation, conservation, and wildlife.” (“Monumental disappointment,” December 7, 2017).

Bears Ears has become a focal point of the public-lands controversy. It was created with–and will be managed in part by–a coalition of five Native American tribes who traditionally lived in the land now protected by the monument, and because of this human heritage combined with its extraordinary geological and biological diversity, Bears Ears now represents the fight for all public lands. But Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante are both rich in fossil-fuel resources, and the extractive potential of these now-off-limits areas has oil and gas and mining companies cheering the reductions.

There is a lot to say about the beauty and value of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. I expect most readers of iRunFar are familiar with these places at least peripherally as areas of outstanding natural beauty, huge distances, solitude, and tens of thousands of archaeological sites. We cannot allow these monuments to be reduced in size. As noted above, their economic potential as monuments is far greater than if they are utilized by extractive industries. There is overwhelming public support for the monuments–more than 98 percent!–and still there will be no shortage of areas where extractive industries can do their work. The administration is acting against the wishes of the American people and even against its own interests. There are undeniably more jobs in the tourism industry than in oil and gas.

But beyond that, I believe some places deserve to exist in their natural state, that there is intrinsic value to having places that “exist where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” as the Wilderness Act articulates.

The reason this decision is so important is because it’s about far more than just three monuments. The American judicial system puts heavy emphasis on precedent, meaning one decision can influence dozens of others. And while monuments have been reduced before, their reductions have never been challenged in court. That means whatever decision the courts ultimately make on this issue will have a massive influence on future decisions. According to the New York Times:

“If Mr. Trump’s legal challengers win in court, the decision could affirm future presidents’ rights to use the Antiquities Act to extend protection to large areas of public land, and cement the monuments’ current boundaries.

But if they lose, Mr. Trump and future presidents could drastically shrink any of the dozens of monuments created by their predecessors, opening the formerly protected terrain for all kinds of development.” (“Trumps Slashes Size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Monuments,” December 4, 2017)

The debate about the fairness of the Antiquities Act is valid and should be continued. But it is nevertheless a law and deserves to be respected as such. And this law allows far-sighted presidents to preserve places that took millions of years to become unique from being altered and destroyed by extractive industries in just a few years. Outdoor groups need to take more responsibility for the negative environmental impacts that uncontrolled tourism can have, but those impacts are as nothing when compared with industries like oil and gas and mining. The administration’s actions have forced this difficult conversation upon all of us. It’s up to us as a nation to confront this problem and decide where our values lie.

As mountain runners, this is our time to stand up for the things we believe in. Public lands are our greatest American heritage, and we can no longer take them for granted. We deserve the right to protect and explore our public lands as runners and to pass on the values they represent to our children. Wild places are trail running’s soul, and without public lands our sport will lose its greatest asset. This is an issue that will affect us economically, morally, and personally, and its results will have historic consequences, for better or worse. You have more power than you know to save these places from development. This is the time to make your voice heard.

Resources

Immediately after the administration’s announcement, several groups sued or pledged to sue various government agencies and/or officials on the decision. Included at the bottom is a short list of groups working to ensure that the monuments remain protected. You can also make a difference as individuals with the following:

  1. Educate yourselves. Read what the organizations below have to say on the subject and then search online for news about the monument reductions. Several of the below organizations send out periodical newsletters keeping their members informed of current events. They will keep you informed of opportunities to write letters, sign petitions, join in demonstrations, and other actions.
  2. Donate. If you have the ability, please consider donating to one or several of these organizations so that they can continue their work in education, outreach, and (especially in this case) litigation.
  3. Call your representatives. One of the best things you can do is call your senators and congressmen/women to tell them about how important public-lands protections are to you. They keep track of the calls they receive and the positions of each caller. If they don’t hear from you, they will certainly hear from the oil and gas industry.
  4. Get outside. Remind yourself why you care about these places. Make sure to get outside and enjoy the places you love so that you’ll never forget why they are worth fighting for.

Organizations

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Can you describe the tangible and intangible value that public lands have to you as a trail runner and human being in general?
  • Do you currently trail run on national-monument land? If so, which one and can you describe what the experience is like?

There are 25 comments

  1. Gordo

    During the last 40 years I’ve spent well over a year cumulative recreating in southern Utah. I love the place and want to see it protected. But even I thought that Bears Ears was a gross over reach. The high-value sites in the area are already well-protected, Grand Gulch, Dark Canyon, Natural Bridges, etc. There’s also a huge downside to creating new national monuments that folks who haven’t been around don’t realize. Dakota mentions the budget problem in the article. What it means in practice is that many of the existing roads in new national monuments end up being closed because the park service doesn’t have the money to patrol the areas accessed and/or to maintain the roads. Easiest to close down access to vast tracts of land to reduce that burden. Grand Staircase is a good example. Half of the existing roads have been closed so far. Beautiful places once accessible by day-hiking become week-long trips. That’s wonderful if you have the time and energy to do those trips, but it funnels an increasing number of people into fewer and fewer areas and the result isn’t pretty. Been to Arches lately? I’d rather go to the dentist.

    1. JJ

      ^^This^^

      I’d rather they leave the best parts as designated wilderness than create another Arches. Best way to ruin a place is to draw a big target on it by calling it a “National Park” or “Monument”.

  2. Cody L Custis

    Even though I disagree with Dakota’s ultimate conclusions, I do so based on a set of criteria that he admits is reasonable and different from his. He deserves the utmost credit for laying out a number of criteria that can be used to judge Trump’s decision and acknowledging facts that weaken his case. This is rare in today’s ever weakening field of journalism, solid job!

  3. Dakota Jones

    Gordo and Cody – Thanks a ton for the constructive criticism. This is the kind of dialogue I’m hoping for with this kind of story. You don’t have to agree with me, but we should be able to talk about our views. I can learn a lot from this kind of disagreement. Thank you.

  4. Jacob

    I think that the decision to reduce the size of the National Monuments was the correct one. As Gordo said, the sites that deserve National Monument status are still designated as National Monuments, while wide swaths of land between the sites will be transitioned to BLM or National Forest Land. Changing their designation to BLM or NF will allow for increased public access in the form of off-road trails, cattle grazing, and yes, resource extraction. During the last few weeks, I’ve been appalled at companies like Patagonia who boldly claimed that “our public lands were stolen.” Every acre of public land is still public land; some parts of the National Monuments will now just become BLM or National Forest. Pure falsehoods like that really make it difficult to have a rational discussion about a complex issue like this.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Just a point of clarification with regard to the lands included in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments (at their greatest extents), those lands were managed by the Forest Service and BLM before monument designation, while the monuments were at their greatest extents, and, now, in whatever status exists following Trumps proclamations.

      Also, as far as I’m aware there were negligible if any changes made to grazing or off-road trail use in Bears Ears NM in the year between the executive orders, so Trump’s action should not increase access in that regard. The change in status could mean increased access to resource extraction.

      Respectfully,
      Bryon

  5. Bobby O'Ryan

    What are the thoughts if a new President comes in and does a reversal campaign and maneuvers the system back to the way it was and reduces the power? Is that possible? Can a new President just come in and change it back to the way it was?

    1. Bryon Powell

      Yes, as it stands at the moment, another president (or Trump) could redeclare the full size Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

      At the moment, there are bills floating around Congress that would limit a president’s power to declare national monuments under the Antiquities Act as well as to specifically limit presidential power to reverse the shrinking/splitting of Grand Staircase-Escalante NM. (Apologies that I’ve not read the latter bill, but I believe that’s a reasonable assessment of its gist.)

  6. mike

    I’m all in for National Monuments, National Parks, National Forests, Wilderness areas, etc. But if land is publicly owned it should be equally accessible and useable for recreation provided the environment is not compromised. That is why Western States, Hardrock, etc. have limits to their race size – which I appreciate since they don’t want to compromise the environment. What I don’t understand is why States have the right to limit access (in terms of use) for commerce reasons over land that is publicly owned. A designated “Wilderness” should be equally accessible and useable for the same use since it is public land. A clear example is Wyoming. Anyone can hike through a Wilderness but if you want to do certain things like hunt you have to be a resident of Wyoming or hire a Wyoming guide/outfitter. Alaska has a similar policy. Seems like tax payer dollars are promoting discrimination based on State residence to line the pockets of a few.

    1. Frederic

      I agree with that. If having a land as “public” means that it should remained wild and untouched, I don’t consider that as “public”. Not that I am against preserving the land but let’s call a spade a spade.
      As an example, having been at Mt Whitney this year, seeing the area limited to 100 people a day (100 people selected by a lottery held in winter) is not the right way to have public land publicly available in my opinion. Why 100 ? why limiting the access ? why not relying on auto-regulation ? If you don’t want to be hiking a trail that has too many people to your taste, you can also go discover other areas.
      Yes, I am sure that we all want to preserve our land but it shouldn’t come with enforcing strict restriction and repression.

      Afterall, what’s the real problem ?
      If the issue is that we don’t want companies to extract resources, let’s put a ban on that. Afterall, some wilderness areas have bans such as not being able to cut trees with power tools.

      1. Alex

        A natural landscape can only bear so much use before the degradation goes beyond simply “there are too many people on the trail”, and ventures into the local flora and fauna being degraded.
        Using Mt. Whitney as an example, most of the trail from the portal to the summit is in a high alpine environment, one where the plants and animals that live there already have a difficult time doing so. So, too many people in a confined area is going to negatively that the local flora and fauna, and in turn, the ecosystem they are a part of.
        As Dakota excellently touches on in his piece, this comes from the US’ preservation movement, setting aside areas that we deem have intrinsic value outside of being of use to us humans, extractive, recreational, etc…

        Also, all Wilderness areas have bans on power tools. That’s part of the Wilderness act.

        1. Frederic

          I am in total favor of preserving nature, I may have misexplained myself.
          My point was, where did we come up with 100 people maximum and a lottery to access a wilderness ?
          If it’s so important to preserve high alpine environment, how come it’s ok to have paved roads going to alpine environment such as Pikes Peak (Toll road!), Trail Ridge Road….
          That doesn’t make sense.

          To go back to the point, I’m all in favor of protecting those lands that Dakota mentions, I just hope that they will actually be public.

  7. Brian

    As runners, I know we tend to look at land-use policy from the perspective of recreational access. What most of the commenters seem to ignore is the cultural and spiritual value of Bears Ears to the indigenous people of the Colorado Plateau. The designation of the monument by Barack Obama was the culmination of years of collaboration, and actually took the wishes of the Navajo, Hopi, Ute, and Zuni into account. Trump and Zinke’s actions here are another ugly example of broken treaties in the name of short-term profits for the extraction industry (it was gold in the Black Hills, it appears to be uranium on Cedar Mesa).

    When assessing the impact of the shrinking of Bears Ears , I think runners should try to think outside the “recreationalist” box and consider how this feels to the indigenous activists who worked so hard to have this sacred place protected. Yes, those lands outside the new monuments will still be managed by the BLM or Forest Service, but under Perdue and Zinke both agencies are now going full steam ahead in the direction of resource extraction (as evidenced by attempts to reopen uranium mines in and around the Grand Canyon).

    1. Bryon Powell

      Brian,
      I think many trail runners who speak of Bears Ears are cognizant of the cultural and spiritual importance of the greater Bears Ears landscape to the indigenous peoples. I think at least a good portion of the articles and other outreach within the community at least touch on these aspects. I think what you’re seeing is targeted outreach. Advocates of all sorts are wise to deliver the most persuasive arguments to their audiences. So, you’ll naturally find that folks sharing the Bears Ears story with trail runners to appeal most strongly (though not entirely) to the recreational aspects.

      While an imperfect analogy, say a city had an iconic, centuries-old house of worship badly in need of repair after a natural disaster. In the disaster’s wake, the spiritual head will likely call on her or his congregation to rebuild the structure using religious references, a sense of religious duty, and it being center to the spiritual community that is the congregation. At the same time, a local civil group could raise funds to help rehabilitate the same building noting it as a (secular) community icon, its role in local history, or the aesthetic beauty of the structure in its pre-disaster form. Neither group is denigrating the others view of the structure, while leading with quite different arguments for supporting the same thing. :-)

      I, for one, have proudly donated a good bit of advertising to Utah Diné Bikéyah here on iRunFar in hopes of raising funds for their outreach in support of indigenous culture and legacy in southern Utah. I also have an image of Willie Grayeyes (the UDB Board Chairman) over my computer this very moment and wear my UDB Bears Ears shirts whenever they’re clean. In other words, the indigenous peoples’ cultural legacy is important to me. Still, in writing about Bears Ears, my most powerful and persuasive writing will be writing of the personal recreational aspect of the place (based on years of experience on writing in this manner). This is all the more true with the audience I have hear on iRunFar. Similarly, when recently writing an article on Bears Ears for the Sierra Club, I was strongly encouraged to write from my personal perspective about my own recreational experience on the lands as this is what I do best AND because many others have very effectively advocated from and for the standpoint of indigenous peoples’ cultural and spiritual connection with Bears Ears.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that while those supporting Bears Ears National Monument all have different oars, we’re all pulling in the same direction.

    2. Gordo

      What you’re overlooking is that the Indians(I’m part Indian and proud of the term. I detest the term N.A.) are themselves split on the issue. In general, the political activists are in favor and the local yokels against.

    3. Dakota Jones

      Brian,

      This is a really important point and one that I wish I could have expanded on more. But this article was too long at 2,000 words and I wasn’t able to address it well. Like Bryon said, I chose to appeal to the recreationist side because that’s the demographic that will appeal to the largest portion of Irunfar readers. I’m considering expanding this article, though, so as to include the whole story. The Indigenous effort to create Bears Ears is a unique story in American history and one that deserves to be told well. I’m not sure if I’m the right person to tell it, but I’d love to learn more about it. There are other parts of the story that deserve telling too, like the value of migration corridors for animals and the benefits to hunting and fishing of protected areas. Similarly, as the effects of climate change become more pronounced, wildlife will be severely stressed. Having more open, undeveloped space is one of the best ways for humans to assist their survival. And we sure don’t need to be investing in more fossil fuel energy.

      You say we “should try to think outside the ‘recreationalist’ box…” That, I think, is crucial to making lasting change. We are simply one user group, and not even the largest. And as part of a vacation-oriented leisure culture, outdoor recreation can become divorced from certain realities like food production and the gas we use in cars and airplanes. Being a trail runner is not going to solve these problems. But it can offer us incentives and the perspective to try to understand our place in the larger sphere of historical activity in an area, or on the planet as a whole. This doesn’t always – or even very often – translate into actual hard work understanding other people and taking real action to do what you think is right. But it can do that. It has for me. When I run in a place like Cedar Mesa, I feel a whole lot more affinity with the Ancestral Puebloan stone houses than I do with the bobbing oil derricks. And I’m now working to try to understand why that is, and how to express it.

      But in the short term, this is a website for runners so I wrote the story for runners. Forgive me. And thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  8. Brian

    Serious question regarding Bears Ears – did Trump open the area up to mining, etc, or did he just reverse the policy put in place by Obama? If he just reversed Obama’s policy, why would anything change within Bears Ears compared to how it was in the past?

    1. Dakota Jones

      Brian,

      That’s a good question. Trump Administration did not specifically open up the area to mining or oil and gas exploration. It simply removed the monument status from the area. The monument status preserves (at least in Bears Ears) grazing rights and some oil and gas leases, but it prevents any new extractive activity. The reason I believe that there is danger of industrial development in the area now is because of a long litany of actions pursued by the Administration to assist the fossil fuel industry. This is far too long and complex to explain here (and frankly I don’t understand it perfectly), but it involves actions like reducing or deferring taxes on fossil fuel industries, reducing the costs of oil and gas and mining leases, and a host of actions to make renewable energy less competitive in the U.S. Basically, the Administration is trying to make the fossil fuel industry competitive by artificially tweaking market forces. The result is that places like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, which are very rugged landscapes with difficult access, become more cost-effective to develop. And it’s not just this Administration; one of the reasons President Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante NM in 1996 was to prevent a massive coal mine from being developed in the area. By removing the protections, that coal mine again becomes an option.

      1. Mark Y M

        Dakota – I appreciate your thoughtful and thorough approach to the issue. But I have to say that your saying that the Administration is “artificially tweaking market forces” in favor of fossil fuel seems upside down to me. The Renewable Energy industry has and still does under the current administration (although less so) extensive business advantages conferred on it by federal, state and local governments and agencies. Whether its thousands of dollars of tax credits for home solar or electric cars or hundreds of millions in grants and federally guaranteed loans to large energy companies (Solyndra, A123, Abound Solar are just examples of failed companies taking hundreds of millions of tax-payer money down with them) the Renewable Energy industry has remarkable advantages over most any other industry much less fossil fuel producers. So while I might potentially agree with you about the impact of oil/mineral extraction out of the Bears Ears area we should be realistic about who the government has – particularly under the previous Administration – been tipping the economic scales in favor of.

        1. Dakota Jones

          Mark. That’s a good point. I figured someone would catch that. In reality, as I probably don’t need to tell you, there is always some sort of artificial market tweaking going on. We don’t live in an Ayn Rand sort of market-controlled world. My point was not to imply that the Trump administration is the only administration to tweak market forces, but that it is certainly tweaking them in a way that makes fossil fuels more competitive. In the context, that was a hypocritical omission. I should have phrased it better. Thanks for keeping me honest.

    2. Stacy

      Regarding resource extraction and “Bears Ears”:
      1. Despite advancements in drilling technology, oil and gas production in SJC peaked 30 years ago and is down by about ½ and ⅔, respectively, from that peak. Source: http://www.drillingedge.com/utah/san-juan-county
      2. If Dakota saw a bobbing pump jack, he wasn’t particularly close to Cedar Mesa, both because there is no oil there and because it is blanketed by WSAs that add up to an area about the size of Capitol Reef NP. In fact, well under 1% of the BLM’s entire Monticello Planning Area has EVER been disturbed for oil or gas development, and substantially all of that is east of Highway 191, i.e. not inside any version of “Bears Ears.” Source: http://digitallibrary.utah.gov/awweb/awarchive?item=73323
      3. The only semi-operational uranium mine anywhere in the vicinity is outside the Obama boundaries and has a surface disturbance area about the size of your local Whole Foods.
      4. The legislation introduced by Congressman Curtis a couple of weeks ago would withdraw the same area from future resource extraction as the Obama boundary.

  9. David E

    Many thanks Dakota and irunfar for this article. As a European living in Asia, I find it hard to understand why the trailrunning community in the US is so apolitical in the face of current events.
    I have visited the US 3 times and each visit was in large parts to experience the great American parks, forests and landscape in general.
    Your current administration is not going to great efforts to protect your own or the world environments. They have made their agenda known and it’s not to protect the environment. That much is clear.
    If you don’t agree with it, you should voice it out no matter which platform.
    Therfore I’m happy to finally find an article on irunfar that is not afraid to have an opinion on it.
    Many thanks again and more should follow.

  10. matt

    I miss this type of reasonable, respectful discourse about important things. Thanks to Dakota for the article and for the informed comments.

  11. Tyler Curley

    Dakota,
    This is one of the best articles I have read on the issue. Having spent time working for the Great Basin Institute and the Nevada Conservation Corps, your explanation of preservation versus conservation was something that I think a lot of folks needed to hear. It is important to understand what role these lands are supposed to fulfill.
    Personally, I am bummed to see the reduction of protections that could potentially lead to increased mining. Of course the irony of typing this on my computer with my iphone at my side is not lost on me; the increased global supply of uranium is something that we have demanded as consumers. I think you have personally made a great effort to reduce your impact on this earth. I and many others could take a cue from you to reduce our impact so that uranium mining and dependence on fossil fuels is minimized.
    Thanks for the well written piece.

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